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Student in hot water for mock rifles

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GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo.

Marie Morrow, an honors student and drill-team commander in the Young Marines, isn't the kind of student who normally gets expelled.

But she's now awaiting the results of Thursday's expulsion hearing after leaving three rifle-shaped props, used for drilling, in the back of her car at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora.

Colorado law mandates expulsion for any student found with a "dangerous weapon" on school grounds, which includes "a firearm facsimile that could reasonably be mistaken for an actual firearm."

The case has galvanized Coloradans as the details play out on talk radio, editorial pages and even the state legislature. State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Republican, said he plans to introduce legislation that would provide an exception to the law for prop weapons used by military-sponsored youth groups.

"There should be exemptions to this hard-and-fast rule so this type of thing doesn't happen again," Mr. Lundberg said in a statement. "I am outraged that a student faces expulsion for participating in a drill team."

Even a spokesman for one of the nation's leading gun-control advocacy groups agreed that the punishment didn't seem to fit the crime.

"We're not concerned about nonoperative rifles, and the facts in this case cry out for someone to exercise common sense," said Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "While officials seem to want to send an important message, which is fine, we don't want to see this young woman's life severely disrupted."

Miss Morrow's attorney, David Lane, acknowledged that the question isn't whether she'll be expelled, but for how long. Colorado law says the expulsion can range from one day to one year.

At the hearing Thursday morning at the Cherry Creek Schools district office, Mr. Lane asked an independent hearing officer to limit the expulsion to time served. Miss Morrow's expulsion began Feb. 6, the day after the prop rifles were found.

"Unfortunately, Marie's going to be expelled because that's the law, but hopefully it will only be for time served," said Mr. Lane, a well-known Denver defense lawyer who also represents former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. "Anything else would be absolutely unjust."

Miss Morrow, 17, likely will learn her fate Friday, district officials said. The Cherry Creek Schools superintendent, Mary Chesley, will make the final decision after receiving the hearing officer's report.

"I just hope that they give me the minimal punishment and then I can go back to school as soon as possible," Miss Morrow told reporters after Thursday's hearing.

Miss Morrow said that during drill routines she spins and tosses the nonoperative rifles, which are made of plastic and wood for drill use, are heavily duct-taped and never built to fire bullets. She had brought them to school Feb. 5 because she was preparing for a competition at the Air Force Academy in April and planned to attend a practice right after school.

Students who receive permission from the school or district can bring such facsimile weapons to school, but Miss Morrow said she was unfamiliar with the rule and didn't tell anyone about the prop rifles.

Some students, apparently on their way to a well-known smoking spot next to the parking lot, spotted the fake rifles through the back window of Miss Morrow's Dodge Durango and contacted school authorities.

Miss Morrow said she was initially told that the rifles would be placed in a police security van and that she could pick them up after school, but then she received a note telling her to go to the dean's office.

The dean and assistant principal told her that she would be expelled instead.

"They said they didn't want to do this, but it's the law and they have to follow it," Miss Morrow said on "The Peter Boyles Show," a Denver morning talk show that has championed her cause.

Callers to the show said the students who turned her in received as a reward coupons to Chik-Fil-A fast-food restaurant, a report Miss Morrow confirmed.

"That's the insanity of this - she's a student leader, a smart kid ... then they give the snitches Chik-Fil-A," Mr. Boyles said.

Even if the expulsion is limited to time served, Miss Morrow's supporters fear that the episode could come back to haunt her in her adult life. She has secured the recommendation from a member of Congress necessary to attend the Merchant Marine Academy.

Cherry Creek Schools spokeswoman Tustin Amole said students' records are destroyed after they graduate, and that there would be nothing in the district files to link Miss Morrow to the incident.

In an editorial this week, the Rocky Mountain News said the law needed more flexibility.

"The law should not be so rigid that it forces schools to expel any student who belongs to a military organization, a drum-and-bugle corps or any other legitimate extracurricular group and is simply transporting what amounts to harmless props," the editorial said.

Mr. Lane blamed Miss Morrow's plight on the "zero-tolerance" policy toward weapons, even fake ones, that has been adopted by many states and school districts.

"I hope the legislature decides that people in authority at schools are allowed to use their brains from now on," Mr. Lane said. " 'Zero tolerance' is a code word for 'No Brains Allowed.' "

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