SKOWHEGAN — The executive director of Children’s Center locations in Maine says the state has missed its deadline — without explanation — for response to his appeal for a waiver of state law to carry a gun at the centers.

In his waiver request to the state Department of Health and Human Services, Executive Director Jeffrey Johnson wrote that many of the 100 children in his care are nonverbal and cannot understand instructions, and some cannot walk.

“Their special needs make it extremely difficult to have ‘lockdown’ or ‘lockout’ protocols that will be efficient or effective,” Johnson wrote in his waiver request. “Our children, in general, cannot understand or move quickly.”

He wrote that the centers are funded largely through MaineCare and fundraising, and they can’t afford an armed resource officer, similar to those in public schools, or an armed security officer. The center has locations and offices in Augusta, Gardiner, Skowhegan and Farmington.

He said he personally has had firearm training and has support in his effort from law enforcement officials.

Johnson sought the waiver to state law, which stipulates that weapons, firearms and ammunition are prohibited in child care facilities.

DHHS’ Division of Environmental Health in March denied the waiver “due to the high risk of compromising children’s safety,” so he appealed.

Johnson’s appeal was heard Aug. 9 in Augusta with Tammy Steuber, the hearing examiner; Dr. Bruce Bates, director of Maine CDC and a physician; and Richard Thackeray, the attorney who presided over the hearing. Bates was the sole witness for DHHS.

The two-hour hearing was conducted for a decision by Thackeray, the attorney and administrative hearing officer, on the merits of Johnson’s threat assessment, which says the sites are “soft targets.”

The completed assessment was due in Thackeray’s hands by Aug. 16.

The DHHS had until Aug. 23 to respond to the threat assessment, Johnson said.

He said he had to provide a closing argument for his appeal in writing, as did DHHS, by Sept. 4. A decision, to be rendered by DHHS, was due 30 days later — on Oct. 4.

“That date came and went,” Johnson said last week, noting that the state was more than 20 days past its deadline. “I called them on the 10th. They were very strict with me, saying if my closing argument wasn’t in by Sept. 4, it was inadmissible. I didn’t hear anything back and I called back again on the 19th. I haven’t heard anything. There is no email, nothing.”

Bates declined to comment on the case in August, referring questions to Emily Spencer, the DHHS manager of media relations. Spencer did not respond in August or this past week to a request for comment on the matter, nor did Thackeray.

“There’s a double standard,” Johnson said this past week. “The state was really playing hardball with me around this, getting X,Y, Z information to them, and when I call back, the same statute that I have been held accountable to doesn’t matter.”

Johnson, a self-described moderate Democrat, is challenging state Rep. Brad Farrin, a Republican from Norridgewock, for the District 3 seat in the Maine Senate.

Johnson said there was no public hearing on the waiver request, but either party could have called or subpoenaed a witness to the hearing. He said he did not call a witness. The state had one witness, Dr. Bruce Bates.

“The department of education did not weigh in on the issue because we are not a school,” Johnson said, adding that the teachers at the Children’s Center are not members of the state teachers’ union. “We are a licensed child care facility, hence the only rule the state applied was the child care licensing rule forbidding a firearm in one of our facilities.”

Johnson said parents of students enrolled at the Children’s Center had input in the days leading up to the hearing in August.

“I sent a notice to all parents and caregivers of children that attend our sites,” Johnson said. “That notice included the fact that the Children’s Center was pursuing a waiver to the firearm rule and that we were looking at the option of whether I should conceal carry as a trained, armed, security presence here.

“I asked parents and caregivers to contact me with any concerns or thoughts and one parent did. She was generally supportive of what I was trying to do, but lamented and was saddened with the world we’re now living with. I share that perspective with her.”

Johnson said he spoke with that parent this past week about her willingness to be interviewed for this story.

“She doesn’t want to get involved,” he said.

Also, he said, one staff member has voiced concerns about guns in schools in general, but several have voiced encouragement and support.

Johnson added that The Children’s Center governing board has supported his efforts at pursuing the waiver “so they can thoughtfully look at the option and then make a decision as to what they want to do.”

“It’s very important to note that the board has not made a decision about this,” he said. “They are supportive of me getting a waiver to the rule so they can consider all options.”

Daniel Burgess, president of the Children’s Center board of directors and chief information officer at MaineGeneral Health, said in an email in August that the full board discussed the matter and is waiting to hear the outcome.

“The board agreed to have Jeff appeal the current regulation to see if this afforded us an additional option,” Burgess said. “We did not discuss how any board member felt regarding allowing a staff member to be armed, and that only if the option was made available would the board take up this question.”

The Children’s Center, an early intervention and preschool education program, began providing family support services in Skowhegan in 2011. The center expanded in 2013 to include an autism program, a behavior support program and special education services, as well as the continuation of targeted case management and caregiver education series.

Johnson said he was certified July 31 for firearms handling, using the same standards developed at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. His range officer was Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols.

Johnson now owns an H&K 9 mm pistol that he purchased after the shooting death of Somerset County Sheriff’s Cpl. Eugene Cole in April.

“If a bad guy with a gun comes into one of our sites, I want to have my firearm and the training that I need in order to stop an attack from happening,” Johnson said in August.

Johnson said the Children’s Center is not a public school or a private school. It is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and licensed child care facility that provides treatment and support to children with disabilities. Under the state rule, weapons are prohibited in child care facilities.

That’s why he is seeking a waiver of the rule.

Johnson said he now leaves his handgun at home, being unauthorized to take it to the Children’s Center property.

He said he paid to have a 30-page threat assessment done and has the written support of Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, dated Aug. 3, and Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason, dated Aug. 1.

“I’m not trying to make a broad statement about arming teachers or anybody else,” he said. “The Children’s Centers has its own unique set of problems.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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