Following up on Senator Ericksen’s ‘grandstanding media event’ at Meridian High School

By Sandy Robson

June 3, 2018

This is a follow-up story with additional details related to my March 25, 2018 article. That article had reported on what was known back at that time about Washington state Senator Doug Ericksen’s March 21, 2018 visit to Meridian High School (MHS), as he described it, to talk with students about gun violence and school safety. Ericksen, a Republican from Ferndale, Washington, is running for re-election to the state Senate this year.

Ericksen Xfinity Arena
Sen. Doug Ericksen who was deputy director for Donald Trump’s Washington state campaign at an Aug 30, 2016 Trump campaign rally, held at Xfinity Arena, in Everett, WA

The timing of Senator Ericksen’s March 21 meeting with students at MHS is worth some review. Starting off the new year and new Washington state legislative session with a bang, Senator Ericksen, on January 24, 2018, had voted against the original Senate Bill 5992 (SB 5992) which sought to ban bump stocks. The bill was prompted by the October 1, 2017 mass shooting where 58 people were killed and hundreds injured at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Some of the weapons used by the shooter were fitted with bump stocks. Bump stocks are devices legally used to modify and enable semi-automatic weapons, such as AR-15 rifles, to then fire like fully automatic rifles which are illegal in the U.S.

Ericksen was quoted in a January 26, 2018 Spokesman-Review article, “Do you really think the crazy psycho person that sits in a hotel room with a gun and says, ‘It’s against the law in Washington to have one of these so I’m not going to do my crime?’” Eventually, on February 26, 2018, the senator ended up voting yes on the final passage of SB 5992 as amended by the House, and it was signed into law in early March.

Senator Ericksen’s March 21 visit with MHS students was held five weeks after the February 14, 2018, mass shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty members were killed, and others were wounded, by a gunman.

The senator’s event at MHS took place on the heels of student walkouts on March 14 at some of the local Whatcom County schools which were part of nationwide walkouts in an effort to generate support for stronger gun-control legislation from legislators. Meanwhile, Senator Ericksen has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) which is a stamp of approval from what is considered the nation’s predominate gun advocacy organization.

Also, Senator Ericksen’s March 21 event was only a few days prior to the planned, (back at that time) widely promoted and publicized, March For Our Lives event that was held on Saturday, March 24, 2018. Participants in the student-led March For Our Lives joined together to march near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. That week there were also many sister marches which took place across the country and even around the world. Locally, one of those sister marches was held here in Bellingham, Washington, on March 24, with approximately 3,000 participants.

Incidentally, Senator Ericksen’s March 21 meeting with MHS students was also roughly two months after the senator had announced he was running for re-election at a press conference he held in Olympia, Washington, on January 8, 2018, the first day of the state legislative session. The senator held the press conference to deliver a vague denial of news reports at that time that he had accepted an appointment to the position of senior adviser to the regional administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 10 office, in Seattle, Washington.

Seeking more information about Senator Ericksen’s event at MHS

After writing my March 25 article on Senator Ericksen’s event at MHS, for which, I had limited information, I wanted to obtain additional details so I could write a follow-up piece. From my follow-up seeking more information, I learned that the senator’s office’s inquiries about the possibility of him speaking to students at some of the local high schools about gun violence and school safety were actually made directly to the high school principals, rather than to the school district superintendents.

Upon that realization, I contacted the principals at the high schools within Whatcom County to see if all of them had been contacted by Senator Ericksen’s office about potentially coming to the schools to talk with students about gun violence and school safety.

From my email communications with superintendents and high school principals from Meridian, Blaine, Lynden, Ferndale, and Nooksack Valley school districts, it appears that a staff person from Senator Ericksen’s office contacted the high school principals, via telephone, inquiring about the possibility of the senator coming to talk with students about school safety and gun violence. Those inquiries occurred sometime during the week of March 12th, and/or possibly sometime during the week of March 5th.

Bellingham high schools and Mount Baker High School apparently not priorities for the senator 

According to my email communications with school district superintendents and high school principals, Senator Ericksen’s office had contacted all of the high schools within Whatcom County except for high schools in the Bellingham School District, and Mount Baker High School.

The school administrations of Blaine, Lynden, and Nooksack Valley high schools decided not to pursue/schedule that activity proposed by the senator. From my email communications with Ferndale School District Superintendent Linda Quinn regarding Senator Ericksen’s office’s inquiry back in March about the possibility of him coming to speak to students about gun control and school safety, it is unclear whether the school district/Ferndale High School responded to the senator’s request at all, or whether the school district/high school decided not to have the senator come talk to students.

I contacted MHS Principal Derek Forbes, via phone, the day after Senator Ericksen’s March 21 event at the high school. He told me that the senator’s office had contacted the school and asked if Senator Ericksen could meet with a panel of students to hear their thoughts and concerns on school and student safety, and gun control. Principal Forbes said that Senator Ericksen/his office left the format for that visit up to his (the principal’s) discretion. Due to what Principal Forbes described as short notice given by the senator about his desired visit, the principal decided to have the meeting with students during the school’s support period, called the T3 period, which then limited the visit with Ericksen to that particular period.

Principal Forbes also told me during our March 22 phone call, that he asked MHS teachers to select any students which they felt might have strong feelings about the issue of gun control, who would want to participate in the discussion. Forbes said he additionally announced, at two school lunch periods, the senator’s then-upcoming visit, asking for any students who were interested in participating. There were approximately twenty MHS students total who participated in that March 21 event with Senator Ericksen.

MHS teacher tells principal ‘This is politics in its worse form’

Public records I obtained from the Meridian School District show that Principal Forbes sent a March 20, 2018 email (at 6:38 AM) to all Meridian High School teachers, letting them know that he still needed names of any students who the teachers believed should contribute to the conversation with Senator Ericksen. According to email records provided, several teachers responded to Principal Forbes and provided him with some names of students as potential participants for the senator’s March 21 event.

One teacher sent a March 20 email response in which he voiced his displeasure to the principal about Senator Ericksen’s intention to come to the school to talk to students about gun control and school safety. That teacher wrote:

“I choose not to participate in this by giving names…This is politics in its worse form. Using a bunch of teenagers to score some form of political points and take advantage of a photo op. I have an enormous fear that people are going to discuss arming teachers with weapons. I strongly believe this isn’t an option and not even worth discussing.”

As it turned out, the possibility of arming teachers was a subject that was part of the discussion during Ericksen’s meeting with students. The teacher’s strongest statement of conviction, however, was in the final paragraph of his email:

“To put it bluntly, this is the mountain I’m willing to die on. If there were weapons on this campus I would quit and find a new job. This isn’t because of a feeling. This is because of reason and logic. Any form of weapon on this campus would be much more likely to be used against an innocent student, not defending a student.”

Senator Ericksen’s request to meet with MHS students turns into publicity event

The idea that Senator Ericksen’s March 21 meeting with students was a publicity event was also voiced more than once by Meridian School District Superintendent Tom Churchill, and was echoed by one or more Meridian School District board members. In a March 20, 2018 email he sent to Principal Forbes, the superintendent wrote, “I did not know this was a planned media event but was rather going to be a visit to learn about MHS. This is disappointing. I hope it goes okay.”

Records indicate that Senator Ericksen’s office staff person, Sandy Ruff, contacted MHS, via telephone, a few days before the Wednesday, March 21 meeting, and spoke with the Head/ASB Secretary, asking if the school was willing to have media present at the meeting with students. After checking with Principal Forbes, the head/ASB secretary let the senator’s office know, via telephone, that it would be okay to have media present at the event. It appears that Senator Ericksen’s office arranged everything regarding his visit via telephone, as there were no written communications between the Senator’s office and Meridian High School personnel  contained in the records provided me.

Superintendent Churchill told me in a March 27 email, that he found out that a media advisory inviting the media to attend had been sent out the day before the March 21 Senator Ericksen event. According to a copy of the media advisory I obtained from Senior Information Officer for the Washington State Senate Republican Caucus, Erik Smith, the media advisory was sent, via email, to various news media outlets on Monday, March 19, at 8:43 AM. Mr. Smith was the individual who sent out the media advisory for Senator Ericksen’s event, and he was listed as the “Media contact” on that notice. King5 News, KIRO 7, The Bellingham Herald, and the Lynden Tribune came to MHS to cover the event. 

Media Advisory Erik Smith Ericksen

Records show that on the day before Senator Ericksen’s March 21 event, Superintendent Churchill sent an email in the late afternoon to Meridian School District’s five board members, letting them know that Principal Forbes told him about Senator Ericksen’s planned visit to MHS. The superintendent said in his email that he did not realize the senator’s March 21 visit with students was going to be a media event, and he included a copy of the media advisory that had been sent out to the media outlets by on behalf of Senator Ericksen. Superintendent Churchill, in his email, added, “This is clearly a political action and not a visit to the campus to see our great programs and kids.”

Churchill Political Action

A board member responded to the superintendent’s email later that evening on March 20, and said Senator Ericksen’s event was a surprise to him, and asked how he missed hearing about it.

Superintendent Churchill responded later that same evening in an email (Ccd to the board), and explained that he learned of the event on Friday, March 16, from the principal, but had been under the impression that the visit was going to be similar to when Washington State Representative Luanne Van Werven (R-Lynden) visited MHS last fall to hear about the school, when Principal Forbes had invited all three state legislators who represent Whatcom County. Apparently, Representative Van Werven was the only one to accept the invitation and come to the school.

In his email to the board, Superintendent Churchill added, “The grandstanding media event that I learned about this afternoon is different than when Van Werven visited.” He closed his email with an apology for “not informing the Board previously.”

Meridian School District board member thinks Ericksen’s event is reaction to ‘bad press’

A board member responded to superintendent Churchill’s March 20 email (and Ccd the board members), and said: “If this is political grandstanding, I am wondering why we are even allowing this? Doug must be getting some bad press.”

In the late afternoon on March 21, after Senator Ericksen’s event was over, another board member sent an email to his fellow board members and superintendent Churchill, and asked, “Well…how was the dog & pony show?”

Dog and Pony Show

A board member who had attended the event responded in an email to the question, and said that the students did great and they represented the school very well. He said, “I concur with Tom [Churchill] though, it was a ‘Doug Erickson’ [sic] show. Totally a media event.” He added that while he thought it was a positive experience for the 20 or so students who participated, “it would have been more positive without all of the cameras.”

Doug Ericksen Show

In communications that myself and Superintendent Churchill exchanged after the March 21 Senator Ericksen event, he wrote this final paragraph in a March 27 email:

“It was Senator Ericksen who decided to make this a media event rather than a listening opportunity. That was unfortunate.”

On March 20, the day before Ericksen’s meeting with MHS students, The Bellingham Herald published a story about the senator’s then-upcoming visit to MHS, titled, “While everybody’s talking about gun violence in schools, he’s visiting to listen.” The article reported: “Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican, said his plan was to start a discussion and then listen.

“‘I want to understand what their concerns are, and their solutions,’ Ericksen said. ‘I think it’s important to listen to our youth on this issue.’”

Senator tells students they’re more likely to get killed texting and driving than in a school shooting

While the senator’s stated intent was that he was meeting with the students simply to listen, King5 News published a March 21, 2018 article covering the event, and reported Ericksen having told students during the meeting, “You’re much more likely to get killed texting and driving than you are in a school shooting.”

Why is a state senator who claims he was meeting with high school students in order to listen to their concerns about gun issues and school safety, then taking the opportunity to deflect from, or minimize, the glaring reality that in the U.S., the list of shooting incidents at schools resulting in injuries and deaths is ever-growing?

There have been additional shooting incidents at schools since the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. On May 18, 2018, there was a mass shooting event at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 students and teachers were killed, and 13 people were wounded. There was also a shooting incident on May 25, 2018, at Noblesville West Middle School in Noblesville, Indiana, where a teacher and a student were wounded.

Senator Ericksen’s decision to have local news media alerted to his March 21 visit to MHS, appears to contradict the senator’s claim that he simply wanted to listen to students’ concerns about gun violence and school safety.

Therefore, it’s regrettable that when MHS Principal Forbes learned a few days prior to the March 21 event that Senator Ericksen wanted to invite news media to attend the event, he did not tell the senator that it would not be appropriate to have news media attend what was billed as a listening session with students.

Superintendent Churchill, in his May 3 email response to my public records request, offered his perspective on the Senator Ericksen event at MHS:

“It is unfortunate that Senator Ericksen chose to invite the media to this event.  This choice by Senator Ericksen to invite the media is what I believe caused your concerns that this was a campaign event and not a learning event. Had Senator Ericksen chosen to come to Meridian High School and listen to what the students had to say without inviting the media, that would have been my preference.”