A 17-year-old Capital High School student charged last week as an adult for allegedly dealing marijuana won’t be charged for also having a handgun in his truck.
Dustin W. Pershall faces a felony charge of criminal possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, according to court documents. However, he did not break any Montana laws by having the gun because the gun was in a parking lot.
“There is no violation of state law for having a gun in a vehicle,” Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said Tuesday.
According to 45-8-361 MCA, “a person commits the offense of possession of a weapon in a school building if the person purposely and knowingly
possesses, carries or stores a weapon in a school building.”
The gun was never reportedly taken into the school, but remained in the truck in the parking lot.
“I filed a charge in District Court, that’s the most severe thing I can do,” Gallagher said, adding that if convicted of the felony drug charge, Pershall would face 20 years in prison or up to a $50,000 fine or both.
That’s not to say the teen doesn’t have consequences at school for having the handgun on school premises, but what that disciplinary action is remains unclear.
Upon investigation, school officials and a Helena police office found a mason jar containing “a large amount” of marijuana in addition to multiple plastic bags with suspected pot in them inside Pershall’s pickup in the school parking lot on Jan. 25, court documents allege. Two scales also were found along with a bong and three glass pipes.
“Pershall admitted the drugs and drug paraphernalia were his and that he sold marijuana, but not at school,” court documents say.
Prior to a search of his vehicle, Pershall informed school officials that a handgun was located under the driver’s seat, court documents state. Officer Matt Thompson located the revolver in a black nylon holster with expended rounds in the wheel.
During an interview with a Missouri River Drug Task Force detective, Pershall said the truck and the gun belonged to his father. He also said his father keeps the gun under the seat, although Pershall had fired it most recently. There is no law in Montana that prohibits the use of a handgun by a minor.
Superintendent Bruce Messinger said he can’t speak specifically to this case because Pershall is a minor and he won’t talk about student discipline cases. He did say that Pershall has not been in school since the incident.
The policy at Capital High School, where the incident occurred, says a student shall not possess a firearm within the district facilities or at any school-related event.
“The Board of Trustees determines that possession and/or use of a weapon by a person within the property of the district or at school-related activities, is detrimental to the welfare and safety of the students and school personnel,” the CHS student-parent handbook says.
It also says that possession or use of any weapon will require immediate proceedings for the suspension and/or expulsion of a student involved.
No expulsion hearing has been set yet. Pershall is currently on house arrest for the felony charge.
Messinger said having a gun on school grounds is not acceptable, but adds that nothing is automatic as the district prefers to handle each case individually.
It’s most likely that a student will be suspended for bringing a gun to school, Messinger said, but the length of suspension depends on the nature of the incident.
“This wasn’t his gun,” he said. “It was never in his possession on the campus (building) … this is different than someone coming inside and wielding a gun.”
Messinger said the district works to continue educating students even if they’ve lost the privilege to attend. It offers options such as Access to Success, and the Montana Digital Academy, or other district-sponsored alternative programs.
“It’s not you’re in or you’re out,” he said. “We have many gradients of education.”
Messinger said once an expulsion is enforced the district cannot continue to educate a student, per state statute, so it works to find alternative ways to continue schooling.
Even though law enforcement is charging Pershall as an adult, the school doesn’t view the situation the same.
“In our eyes he’s not an adult, even though he’s being tried as an adult,” Messinger said.