By Ed Runyan
A Warren City Schools teacher has been on paid administrative leave for the past month after telling police Oct. 30 a gun, two knives and a machete were stolen from his car in the parking lot of Warren G. Harding High School.
Kirk Zellers, 59, of Bristolville, a special education teacher since 1997, was placed on leave Nov. 1.
Zellers was told the reason for the leave was he had violated the school board’s policy on having weapons on school property.
The school district hand-delivered a letter to Zellers from Superintendent Steve Chiaro notifying Zellers he was on home assignment effective immediately. He is prohibited from being on school property and must not contact any school employee or student, the letter says.
A fact-finding meeting had been scheduled for Nov. 9 to discuss the violation. The meeting never took place, and the matter has not yet been resolved, Chiaro said, declining to discuss any specifics of the case.
It’s not known whether Zellers is doing work for the district from home while on leave. A call to Zellers Friday was not returned. He earns $68,320 annually.
A discussion with the president of the Buckeye Firearms Association suggests the reason the case has dragged on as long as it has: The matter raises legal issues that could take time to sift through since Ohio law protects people with concealed handguns differently than it does people with concealed knives, and state law regarding knives can be vague.
School district policy “prohibits professional staff members from possessing, storing, making or using a weapon, including a concealed weapon, in a school safety zone,” according to a copy of the policy provided by Chiaro. A school safety zone appears to include all school property and situations off of school grounds.
About 8 p.m. Oct. 30, a Harding maintenance employee informed Zellers and another teacher that their cars had been damaged in the parking lot. Apparently a chunk of asphalt had been thrown through the driver’s and rear windows of Zellers’ Jeep Sahara.
A Warren police report says a Ruger 9 mm handgun and two full magazines of ammunition were taken from the vehicle. Also taken was a backpack containing a machete, two knives, flashlights and ship-to-shore radio. A gym bag containing gym wear also was taken. The other teacher indicated nothing was stolen from his vehicle.
The police report did not describe either knife or the machete or list the value of any of those items. Zellers was asked to provide the gun’s serial number to police as soon as he was able.
When The Vindicator asked police if Zellers told them why he had those weapons in his vehicle, Capt. Jeff Cole of the Warren Police Department said his officers would not have asked because Zellers had the right to have them in his vehicle.
Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Assocation, said Ohio law, approved in 2017, provides protections for individuals storing a weapon in their vehicle, even in a school safety zone.
The law says a public or private employer cannot enforce a policy that stops people with a valid concealed handgun license from storing a handgun or ammunition in their vehicle if the gun is locked in the trunk, glove box or other enclosed compartment or container in the vehicle.
Irvine said if the school district disciplines the teacher for the handgun or ammunition, it would be violating Ohio law, and the teacher would have recourse through the civil courts.
He said Ohio law regarding storage of knives in a vehicle doesn’t protect the owner as much, but a crucial factor is whether the knife is considered a “deadly weapon,” meaning an “instrument, device or thing capable of inflicting death, and designed or specially adapted for use as a weapon, or possessed, carried or used as a weapon.”
A July 25, 2018, article written by police officer Greg Ellifritz on the Buckeye Firearms website says there is “minimal clear-cut statutory guidance about the difference between a common pocketknife carried for utilitarian purposes and a deadly weapon that is illegal under the law.”
Ellifritz said it could be illegal to carry a concealed pencil if it were rammed into someone’s eye socket because it may be capable of inflicting death.
Some factors a police officer might use to classify a knife as a weapon are the name of the knife (example: Throat Cutter 6000), length of the blade and features such as opening automatically, Ellifritz said.
“In practice, 99 percent of street cops are not trying to arrest you for carrying a knife clipped to your pocket,” he said. “If you don’t threaten the cop or anyone else with your blade, most cops won’t make an issue out of carrying a knife, even if you are carrying it as a weapon,” the article says.