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Gun at school creates concerns

Parents want to be sure that a fifth-grader charged with bringing a handgun to school will be sent to a specialized school.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2000


ZEPHYRHILLS -- School administrators sought to ease parents' concerns and students' curiosity Thursday after an 11-year-old boy was arrested and charged with bringing a loaded .357-caliber Magnum handgun to West Zephyrhills Elementary.

"People need to know that our school is safe," principal Madonna Wise said.

Wise said the parents she's heard from since the Wednesday morning incident didn't question whether the campus was safe for their children; rather, they wanted assurances that the fifth-grade suspect would not return to the school.

"There have been concerns about this kid returning to school," Wise said. "We all feel it's probably not a good idea" for the boy to come back to the school.

School officials found the gun in the boy's duffle bag after a classmate told his teacher during a routine fire drill that his friend had shown him the weapon, police said. Police said the boy intended no harm and only brought the gun to school to impress his friends.

Following his arrest on charges of possession of a weapon on school property, the boy was taken to the Pasco County Juvenile Detention Center in San Antonio. He will almost certainly be expelled and transferred to the James Irvin Education Center, Pasco schools Superintendent John Long said.

The Times is withholding the boy's name because of his age.

On Thursday, at Wise's request, teachers in every classroom met with the school's 780 students and discussed the incident. School district psychologist Patrick Beahon also spoke to students, many of whom, he said, were full of questions after learning they had been close to a deadly weapon for the first time in their young lives.

"They were very curious," Beahon said. "This is a foreign concept to them."

Wise said she spoke with the parents of the boy who reported the gun and congratulated them on their son's presence of mind.

"We are very proud of him," Wise said.

She said the school has nominated him for the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Month award. School officials and police have not not released the classmate's name.

Meanwhile, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office is awaiting a final report of the incident from the Zephyrhills Police Department, the agency that arrested the boy. The gun belonged to the boy's father, Zephyrhills police said, and the Sheriff's Office will investigate how the boy obtained the loaded weapon from his family's home.

The family lives south of the city limits of Zephyrhills, in the Sheriff's Office's jurisdiction.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers said it is "way too premature" to speculate about whether the boy's father will be charged. He said deputies will start their investigation from scratch.

"We'll be looking into the source of the weapon," Powers said.

In Florida, it is a second-degree misdemeanor to leave or store a loaded firearm where a minor could reasonably gain access to it without the permission of a parent or guardian. According to Florida law, if a minor is likely to have access to a loaded gun, it must be stored in locked container or have a trigger lock.

Police said the gun the boy brought to school Wednesday did not have a trigger lock.

The boy's father, reached by telephone Thursday, had no comment.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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