Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen condemned Wednesday “any statements or actions of violence” as “egregious” following a comment made at a meeting in Missoula to “shoot” school superintendents.
Lawyer Quentin Rhoades, who had responded to a question about how to deal with superintendents with a grin and, “shoot ‘em?” said he had been joking at the Monday night meeting, and the crowd responded in kind.
Nonetheless, Arntzen in a statement denounced the comment. The Republican superintendent had top billing at the Parental Rights in Education Action meeting, which drew nearly 100 people, but she was not in the room during the exchange.
“I condemn any statements or actions of violence regardless of the context,” Arntzen said in a news release from the Montana Office of Public Instruction. “Others’ individual comments made during the Parental Rights event in Missoula on November 1, 2021, at the Crosspoint Community Church were egregious. These types of comments serve no purpose in championing parent voice in our public education arena.
“I was unaware of the comments made after I spoke as I had moved to the hallway to take individual questions. I learned of these comments from a Tuesday, November 2, 2021, article in the Helena Independent Record. I have reached out to specific superintendents in the Missoula area to express my disdain for these comments made at an event in which I was the first speaker.”
Arntzen had spoken to community members who expressed frustration with mask mandates and public school officials, as she has at other events in Montana. Participants also talked about plans to push for more charter school options in Montana and challenge open school board seats.
Following news of the comment to “shoot,” Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson asked in a tweet how the remark was received.
“As Supt for MCPS, I typically use Twitter to celebrate our kids and our staff, so this is new for me. A simple question for @SuptArntzen as she was at this meeting and I was not, when the joke was made about shooting superintendents, did she laugh?” Watson tweeted.
Some public education officials have been harassed over COVID-19 restrictions in Montana. Watson did not provide additional comment Wednesday, but in a statement provided by the district communications specialist, Missoula County Public Schools said violence in schools is not a joking matter.
“We at MCPS were shocked and disheartened to hear that Mr. Rhoades told a room full of people to ‘shoot them’ in reference to our area superintendents,” MCPS said in the statement. “Advocating violence is never a joke, and to do so toward public school officials who work every day to ensure the safety of students in the school environment is especially troubling.
“Going forward, we hope that threats and suggestions of violence will not be part of any discussion related to providing educational services for our children.”
At the meeting, Mike Gehl, appointed as a Missoula County Public Schools trustee and one of the speakers, talked with participants about how to run for office. He stressed the support he had received from Arntzen in doing so.
At one point in the meeting, he asked Rhoades, who is representing parents in court challenges over mask mandates, to remind him what the lawyer had said in the past about what to do with superintendents.
Rhoades said, with a grin: “Shoot ‘em?” In response, Gehl said, “Fire ‘em.”
Wednesday, Rhoades said he was making a play on words, and said the conversation about “firing” the superintendent was akin to “discharging him from his duties,” not hurting him. He said he felt the question was delivered in “a jocular way,” and he responded in kind.
In 2020, the U.S. saw 24 deaths in 96 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, according to Everytown, an organization that tracks gun violence in the country. However, Rhoades said he did not have second thoughts about making the comment because Montana has its own relationship with firearms.
“It’s pretty well established in Montana, and has been in Montana, that there’s a gun culture that’s different than most places,” he said. “And our gun laws reflect that. We have Constitutional carry and that sort of thing.”
He also said if the discussion was serious or if specific people had been named, a joke would not have been appropriate.
“I just think that any sort of feigned outrage is more opportunistic than anything else because of the sort of nature of the exchange and the way it was taken in the room,” Rhoades said.