Musket replicas don’t pass muster for class program

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WHITINGHAM -- When history buff James Dassatti was asked to do a presentation for a U.S. history class at the Twin Valley Middle School, he wanted to pull out all the stops. As a Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactor and executive director of the Living History Association, Dassatti owns elaborate, historically accurate costumes that he wears for such occasions.

One of his goals is to help people imagine what fighting in a war must have been like, and his presentation isn’t really complete without allowing the audience to see live replicas of old firearms, he said. So he was disappointed when, while making preparations, he was notified by the eighth grade teacher that the Twin Valley School Board would not allow him to bring the historical muskets to school.

Twin Valley class

Dassatti said that with permission from school administrators, he had brought muskets into many schools over the years and only ran into resistance once.

In an exchange of e-mails between Dassatti, the teacher and local town officials, Dover Select Board member Colby Dix even raised the question of whether bringing guns into a school is ever legal under federal law. "That caught me by surprise, to think that I could have potentially been arrested," Dassatti said.

As it turns out, he had not been inadvertently breaking any laws. According to criminal law, said State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver, if you are found to have a gun or other dangerous weapons in a school building, you can be charged and the maximum penalty in Vermont would be up to 60 days in prison or a fine of up $500, or both.

Approvals allowed

"However," she added, "the board of the school may authorize use of firearms for specific occasions or other instructional purposes."

The board could also delegate the responsibility of authorizing the weapons to the superintendent or the principal, Shriver said. "The school board would have to say it doesn’t want to be involved in every single decision and give the responsibility to the principal to judge on a case by case basis," she said.

For both Dassatti and the members of the Twin Valley School Board, Dassatti’s recent request to bring in the muskets raised some questions about where to draw the line when it comes to guns in schools.

Dassatti reiterated that he was "asking for the permission to bring the guns in on a designated day at a designated time, and for me to be able to coordinate with the principal as to when that was going to be."

"I’m not an advocate of bringing guns into school willy-nilly at all," he said.

Ed Metcalfe, Twin Valley School board chairman, said the board decided to stick to its guns when it comes to its no tolerance weapons policy because the precedent had already been set. "These are functioning weapons, even though there is no ammunition, and basically we feel that times have changed," Metcalfe said. "There was a time when, during hunting season, kids brought their hunting weapons to school and were taught hunting safety. But in the last few years, schools all over Vermont and the country have changed the rules about allowing weapons in school."

Dassatti had submitted a letter to the board asking for permission, and the board denied the request at a meeting Dec. 2 because it didn’t feel that the presentation warranted bending the rules, said Metcalfe.

"We felt he could do a good job of teaching without those rifles, and we said that if they could find another venue off school grounds, then we would probably allow that," Metcafe said.

Colonial-era weapons

The guns in question are working replicas of weapons used 250 years ago.

If they fell into the wrong hands, there is little chance the thief could do much damage with it, said Dassatti. "They could function, but you would have to have black powder, a ball and a flint and hammer," he said. "And you would also have to know how to use it."

He said he brings the weapons in, unloaded, to give the students an idea of what soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil wars had to go through in battle. "It shows the stark difference between then and now," Dassatti said. "We’re talking about weapons that are loaded and fired one shot every 20 seconds or so."

He said that by demonstrating how the musket is used, students are easily able to see how incredibly different war tactics were back then when compared to modern-day warfare. "Their whole thought process when it came to battle was basically limited by the technology that was available," he said.

As time marches on, he said, the way we learn about history changes. "One of the unfortunate things about the way the subject is often taught today is that it really boils the human component out of history," he said.

Despite the incident, Dassatti said he still has much respect for Scott Salway, the teacher who asked him to visit his class after meeting him at the Living History Association’s time line event, held at the Matterhorn Inn in Dover last October.

He added that he has been to Salway’s class a couple of times already in Colonial attire to talk about early American settlement and the French and Indian War.

He and Salway have been working to make alternative arrangements for the class and are planning to do the presentation at the Matterhorn Inn the first Tuesday after the New Year.

The Living History Association has also received funding to put together an educational program at the Matterhorn Inn this spring.

The Dover Economic Development Committee approved $7,000 for the program in last June, Dassatti said.

He said it will be open to any students who would like to participate, and he plans to use a New England-wide mailing list to invite schools and attract visitors from out-of-state.


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