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Was there any crime in alligator riding bus?

State prosecutors are struggling to decide what, if any, charges they can file against the bus driver and the teens involved in the March 4 incident.

Published April 2, 2004

State prosecutors seem perplexed over what to do about the alligator who went for a ride on a Pasco County school bus last month.

Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pasco and Pinellas counties, said Thursday that his office is struggling to decide what, if any, charges are appropriate for the bus driver and teens involved in the gator-wrestling incident.

"I have some issues on that case," Bartlett said. "Was there really a criminal intent there?"

During a bus ride home from Pasco High and Pasco Middle schools March 4, four students got off the bus in Lacoochee, chased a 4-foot alligator into a field, taped the reptile's mouth shut and carried it onto the school bus.

Bus driver Sherry Hattaway then drove the kids and the gator to the home of one of the students, where several children disembarked and loaded their catch into the back of a pickup, which belonged to the father of two of the children.

Although students involved said they had Hattaway's permission to do what they did, Hattaway's attorney maintains that she tried fiercely to discourage them and then allowed the kids on the bus with the gator because it was better than leaving the students behind in the field.

"This is a good, decent woman who made a tough decision under a pressure-packed situation, and it lends itself to being second-guessed," said Larry Hart, Hattaway's attorney.

The issue isn't clear-cut, Bartlett said.

Child endangerment questions are involved, and clearly there are laws against capturing wild alligators, he said. The strictest reading of the endangered species laws would mean "theoretically that you charge everyone - the kids and the driver," Bartlett said.

The Pasco County School Board has placed Hattaway on unpaid suspension.

Although district officials sent home a letter to parents and students about the seriousness of the alligator affair, school administrator Bob Dorn said the ultimate responsibility lay on Hattaway's shoulders because she allowed the students on the bus with the reptile.

None of the kids involved were suspended.

"We're not saying they (the students) are excused from legal responsibility," Dorn said. "From a school district perspective, we feel the issue is with the adult."

Hart takes a different view.

No one was hurt, he said. The alligator was soon released into a river by the father who owned the pickup - a man who once was employed on an alligator farm. The students obviously knew how to handle the reptile - one of them even had a roll of electrical tape, Hart said.

And, the attorney said, people usually chuckle when they hear the story.

"These are young teens doing what you'd expect young teens to do," he said. "Boys will be boys."

[Last modified April 2, 2004, 11:17:11]

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