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Rumors of guns keep kids at home

When a fight between two students smolders into rumors about a gunfight, a third of Parrott Middle students play it safe.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- A third of the students at Parrott Middle School stayed home Friday after hearing rumors that a gunfight was going to break out between black and white students.

School officials brought in backup from the Sheriff's Office to ensure everyone's safety, but by the end of the day, authorities determined that the false rumors stemmed from an isolated fight between two eighth-graders, one black and the other white.

"There wasn't anything factual where anyone had threatened anyone," said principal Marvin Gordon. "It bothers me that this was blown out of proportion . . . but we appreciate the fact that our community would report their concerns, especially in light of Columbine and what happened in California two weeks ago."

What really happened at the school was this, the principal said:

On Wednesday, a white eighth-grader taking health class said she wanted to check out one of the school's battery-operated baby dolls that cries. The dolls are used to teach students about the realities of parenthood.

But when she saw the only doll left was black, she said she no longer wanted it. Later, a black student asked her if she had a problem with blacks.

The white girl then called the other student a racial slur, and at lunch, a fight broke out between the two. The girls were separated and informed that, as soon as they finished taking the FCAT the next day, they would be suspended for three days.

On Thursday, the girls returned to school to take the test. Because the students had been taking the FCAT in the same classroom, they had to be separated. The black eighth-grader remained in the classroom, and the white student took the test in another area.

Apparently some white students weren't pleased with this outcome, and word spread that there was going to be another fight at lunch that day. As a result, extra staff members were assigned to lunch duty. This, and the fact that class schedules were rearranged because of testing, fanned even more rumors of problems and a lockdown. There never was one.

Finally, at least one white student started telling others she was afraid black students were going to come to school with guns Friday. This final rumor spread throughout the school, and worried parents started calling in droves Thursday evening.

Brooksville resident Donna Day was among them. She said she heard different rumors from several parents and, not knowing what to think, kept her son and daughter home Friday.

"It scares me that my kids are having to deal with this stuff -- they're so young," she said. "They were rumors, so who knew if they were true? But it was better safe than sorry."

Gordon said that he was "caught off guard" by the extent of the rumors when he first heard them Thursday and was not sure of their origin or veracity. As a precaution, he called in sheriff's deputies.

On Friday, two additional deputies went to the school, sheriff's spokeswoman Deanna Dammer said. But no violence occurred. One boy was arrested after he was found with a knife, but the incident was unrelated to the rumors, Dammer said.

The principal, meanwhile, sent a letter home to parents explaining the situation once he determined how the story started. He also went to each classroom and spoke with the students.

All in all, Friday went smoothly, Gordon said, attributing the widespread fear to recent school shootings.

"We have no racial problems at our school . . . but if parents want to keep their kids home, they have that right if they have a concern their child is not safe," he said. "Columbine is still fresh."

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