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Whispers of violence take toll at 2 schools

The rumors nearly empty one Pinellas school and affect another. Administrators aren't sure how to prevent the disruptions.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001

The rumors nearly empty one Pinellas school and affect another. Administrators aren't sure how to prevent the disruptions.

GULFPORT -- Late Sunday, Boca Ciega High School principal Barbara Paonessa got many calls at home about a rumor that a student planned to bring a gun to school.

She called police, talked with her staff and wrote an e-mail to teachers explaining that extra precautions would be taken. She prepared for a long day.

By the time the bell sounded at 7:20 a.m. Monday, the rumor had taken on a life of its own. Some students heard a shooting could happen at lunch, and some heard it involved a conflict between the preps and the thugs. One of the rumors also involved a bomb.

Few students stuck around to see what would happen.

By 11 a.m., the 1,850-student campus at 924 58th St. S was deserted. Some classes went on, and lunch was served. But students said only two or three kids were in each class, and by lunchtime, less than a quarter of the student body was still there.

"I've never seen this many people leave," said senior Jessica Dulabaum. "Not even on senior skip day."

There was no shooting, no fights. A campus search found no guns.

The rumor that shut down a school apparently had its basis in a Friday night fight at a St. Petersburg park. By noon, it was just the latest in a frustrating succession of threat-induced disruptions for area school administrators.

St. Petersburg High had an absentee rate of nearly 25 percent Monday after a variation of the same rumor hit that campus. Earlier this month, it was Bayonet Point Middle School in Pasco County, where 1,033 students stayed home after a student threatened to "shoot up the school." In February, the entire Hillsborough County School District evacuated 170,000 students because of a vague bomb threat.

"It is frustrating," said Linda Benware, principal of St. Petersburg High School. "You feel helpless. You want very much for the students to be here, to feel safe. I am limited to what I can do to provide that."

The root of the rumors involving Boca Ciega and St. Petersburg high schools began Friday at Azalea Park at 13th Avenue N and 72nd Street. At 9:25 p.m., students, some with guns and baseball bats, showed up at the park ready to fight as a carryover from another dispute, police said.

An 18-year-old Boca Ciega student had a handgun pointed at his head and was struck in the left eye with the gun.

Soon after, police started receiving calls from parents and students worried that Friday's dispute would be settled Monday at either Boca Ciega or St. Petersburg High, said St. Petersburg youth resources Sgt. Kathy Vacca.

Seven officers were sent Monday morning to St. Petersburg High. At Boca Ciega, the Sheriff's Office sent in five deputies and a sergeant.

Benware said she didn't know why most of her students stayed the whole day while most Boca Ciega students left their school. This morning, she will encourage students to continue speaking up when they feel afraid -- but she also will warn them that students who perpetuate false rumors will be punished.

"We have to let students know that if they are starting false rumors and we prove that they are, that there is a consequence for that," Benware said.

In an unrelated incident, police on Monday arrested and charged a 12-year-old Azalea Middle School boy who allegedly threatened twice during class to blow up the school.

Whether it was spread out of concern, or just to get out of school, the rumor at Boca Ciega had a quick and impressive impact.

By 9 a.m., the crowd of students outside Paonessa's office was so large that Paonessa asked teachers to lend their cell phones to students who wanted to call home. She thought it would be safer for students to stay in their classrooms, using phones there, rather than hanging out in the halls or the front office.

"We certainly did not try to force anybody to stay. You can't do that," Paonessa said, adding that the absences would be marked as excused. "They needed to contact their parents first."

Sherman Bryan, who picked up his 14-year-old daughter, said he was glad to hear that school officials had taken a rumor so seriously. Other parents, sitting in the traffic circle at the front of the school, echoed Bryan's statement.

"I know education is more important, but I'd rather have my kids home safe where I know where they are," said MaryJane Smith, who has two daughters at Boca Ciega.

Cathy Athanson, an area superintendent, thinks the fact that the rumors came shortly after two school shootings in California made students and parents more prone to worry. Some acknowledge that this part of the spring is trying for everybody -- state tests are over, the weather is nice and it has been a long stretch since winter break.

"All of those shootings make you scared, so we just left," said Angelica Diaz, 14. "We're going home in case something happens."

Superintendent Howard Hinesley, like other administrators, does not know how to prevent the kinds of threats that ended Boca Ciega's day. He said it is important for school administrators to continue to openly communicate with students and let them know school is safe.

"There's no magic pill to it," Hinesley said.

Is there any hope that Pinellas and other districts can make it to the end of the year without a dozen more days like this? Benware is banking on a trademark teenage characteristic.

"Eventually, they will tire of this," Benware said.

- Times staff writers Leanora Minai, Alicia Caldwell and photographer Amber Tanille Woolfolk contributed to this report.

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