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Civil War guns spark Hawaii classroom conflict

David Gruetzner of Austin, Texas, shows children and adults how to load a Civil War era rifled musket during the Texas Military Forces Open House at Camp Mabry, Austin, Texas, April 21-22. Gruetzner, an organizer of Civil War reenactors, demonstrated tearing a small pack of gunpowder, pouring it down the barrel, using the ramrod to pack the powder in and replacing the firing cap. He then handed the weapon over for firing. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Suzanne Carter/100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Mililani Middle School teacher Garret Ogata likes to make history feel real, so when he covers the American Civil War, he shares relics dating from that conflict: letters penned by soldiers on the battlefield, photographs, even antique firearms.

His principal, Elynne Chung, approved his classroom presentation several years ago but abruptly changed her tune this spring, Ogata said. She ruled out bringing any guns on campus, citing the series of school shootings across the country.

“I told her there is no correlation between the two,” said Ogata, a veteran teacher. “I’m not bringing in modern firearms. These are antiques and give students an opportunity to see things that they won’t even see in a museum. She said all it takes is one parent to complain.”

Ogata obtains written permission from parents at the beginning of each school year, as well as the week before he brings in the highlights of his extensive Civil War collection. He said he has never run into a problem before. The guns are unloaded and there is no ammunition, he said, and the 1860s artifacts simply spark lively discussion.

Chung declined to be interviewed on the subject and referred the Honolulu Star- Advertiser to the Hawaii Department of Education’s communications office.

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“The decision to forgo the in-classroom display of Civil War era firearms was done in consideration of numerous student and parent concerns that have been raised over the many school shootings that have occurred across the U.S.,” the communications office said in a written statement.

“Per Board of Education Policy 305-1, the school has a duty to ‘provide a caring environment conducive to the physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being of students while they are participating in school activities.’ The school will be sensitive to the concerns raised and not include the historical firearms display in class while continuing on with the greater historical lessons.”

Ogata has been collecting Civil War relics for about 20 years and teaching for nearly 30. His antique firearms range from a wooden-handled Savage Navy revolver to a Spencer rifle, an innovation he said helped the Union prevail because it could be fired multiple times without reloading. He insisted they pose no threat.

“I understand that there is a crisis, people are getting shot in the schools,” Ogata said. “I’m not bringing in the Glock. I’m not indoctrinating kids on gun ownership … The guns are unloaded. They are just there for kids to see and not to play around with.”

A Board of Education policy prohibits firearms on any school campus or DOE workplace, for the protection of employees and students, with three exceptions. Those exceptions are for firearms used by law enforcement officers on duty; in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps; or in athle­tics such as riflery teams and starter guns for athletic events.

Ogata said he wishes there were an exception for curriculum displays. Mililani Middle School is on a year-round schedule and he brought in other items from the Civil War for his students this month.

The social studies teacher keeps his collection at home in a small enclosed room the size of a walk-in closet. Long guns, including a musket, are mounted high on the wall above an evocative photograph of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant conferring with his “Council of War” as horse-drawn ambulances and wagons pass Massapanox Baptist Church in Virginia.

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Palm-sized portraits show individual soldiers posing for posterity before heading to the front, including one rare image of a solemn soldier cradling his baby. Among the letters written in flowing script in Ogata’s collection is one written by Union Army Capt. John P. Shaw, performing the “painful duty” of telling a father that his son was killed in battle on May 11, 1864. Days later Shaw himself died at the front.

Also preserved is an April 27, 1860, edition of The Liberator, a newspaper published for 35 years by William Lloyd Garrison, an ardent abolitionist who was dragged around Boston by a mob with a rope around his neck for his efforts to end slavery.

The artifacts help make the war, its individual stories and its legacy tangible for his students.

“You can pique their interest,” Ogata said. “You can get a bunch of them to say, ‘Yeah, this is interesting, and it’s not just a boring textbook. I want to learn more about it.’ ”

“I believe teaching is all about passion,” he said. “Once you pull the passion out of school, then you’ve lost everything. I’m just sad that you can’t bring American history into an American history class.”

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© 2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.