Former deputy questions firing from school over carrying gun

Retired deputy says he lost Hedrick Middle School job exercising his right to carry
Donald Later, 64, was fired from his part time job as a Hedrick Middle School campus monitor for carrying a gun while at work. Mail Tribun e/ Bob Pennell

Donald Later does not want to be the face of gun advocacy.

The former Hedrick Middle School campus monitor spoke reluctantly Wednesday about being fired on grounds of insubordination for defiantly carrying a semiautomatic pistol to work.

"This is not about me. It's not about guns. It's about whether or not I was acting in accordance with School Board policy," said Later, 64, who is a retired Jackson County sheriff's deputy and longtime Medford resident. "I don't see how they can say I'm not in compliance."

At issue, says Later, is the state law that allows honorably retired law enforcement officers to carry a concealed weapon with a permit and not be prosecuted.

A Medford School Board policy also permits weapons on campus if under the control of law enforcement personnel.

The fired employee believes that although he retired from the Sheriff's Department two years ago, this policy applies to him.

The district sees it differently, and on June 18, the Medford School Board upheld Later's dismissal for continuing to carry a gun after he was told not to.

"When it comes to someone responsible for our students' safety, we need to know they will follow direction and abide by our safety protocols," Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long said after Later's appeal was denied.

Long added that Later's part-time job of directing students on and off buses, monitoring them during the lunch break, and reminding them not to ride skateboards on campus does not require him to have a weapon.

Later said he didn't apply for the job to push for gun rights, but during his job training in January, "they kept emphasizing the safety of the children."

Recent violent events on campuses then led him to think, "What would I do in that case?" said Later, whose seven children, now ages 23 to 38, attended Medford schools, as do some of his 13 grandchildren, ages 1 to 18.

Believing he would be more effective if armed, he met with Long "out of courtesy" on March 26 to say that he was going to carry a gun to campus.

"If an attack should happen to occur," he said, "I would feel compelled to protect others."

Later served 18 years in the Army, including as a chief warrant officer in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971.

"I was once unprepared in combat," he said, "and you never want to be in a situation where people are shooting at you and you can't defend yourself."

As a corrections deputy with the county from 1998 to 2011, he carried a gun when transporting prisoners.

He said he encounters former jail inmates "on a daily basis" and feels more prepared to handle situations by having his pistol nearby.

A month after meeting with Later and reviewing district policy, Long outlined in a two-page letter mailed to Later's home on April 24 that employees carrying weapons were in violation of School Board Policy GBJ and can be subject to discipline — and possibly fired and referred to law enforcement.

By that time, Later said, he had been going to work with his gun for about two weeks.

After replying to Long's letter on April 29, Later showed up for his morning shift at Hedrick and told Principal Dan Smith that he was armed.

Soon afterward, Todd Bloomquist, director of secondary education, arrived on campus and told Later to go home.

"I was surprised at that but I said, 'OK,' " Later said.

The part-time employee was placed on paid administrative leave and then fired in May.

When Later was hired on Jan. 7, he signed a form stating that he understood the district's policies and he agreed to abide by them.

Because he was a probationary employee, not a member of the union, he could be fired without cause.

Sitting Wednesday with an inch-thick folder filled with documents in front of him, Later said he had not spoken to anyone publicly after the failed appeal and was talking now only because a Mail Tribune reporter sought him out.

He did talk to a Portland attorney before the appeal who gave him advice for free, he said.

Later said he has lost $2,000 from expenses and in lost wages. He was paid $10.77 an hour for 31/2; hours of work in three short shifts a day during the school week.

A month after his dismissal, he still believes he acted in accordance with school policy, but his "arguments have fallen on deaf ears."

He believes his situation is unlike a previous case involving the district in 2007 in which a South Medford High School teacher, not a retired law enforcement officer, wanted to carry a gun.

In that case, a Jackson County Circuit Court found that Medford schools' policy forbidding employees from carrying guns was not subject to the state law that bars cities and other local governments from regulating guns.

In 2009, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the district's right.

He said he has read about the ongoing debate in the Eagle Point School District about arming employees, but he has not participated in any discussions and wouldn't work there because it's too far from his home.

If he could do anything differently with the Medford School District, he said, he wishes the issue would have stopped at Long's office at that first meeting.

He shakes his head.

"They did not require me to carry, but they didn't exempt that, either," he said. "It may not be a requirement of the job, but I have the right to be able to protect myself."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com.



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