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Years after shootings, student is ready to teach

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Almost 12 years ago, Pinellas Park High School junior Tammy Duemmel stared down in disbelief at her assistant principal, who lay mortally wounded at her feet.

Monday night, her life came full circle as she accepted her University of South Florida bachelor's degree in early childhood education to become a teacher herself.

Though troubled for years by flashbacks of that day of gunfire, she now wants to work and teach in the Pinellas County school system.

"I love children and decided I could help more by concentrating on early childhood education, by helping them grow by overcoming their fears. All they really need is love."

The road from that horrible day in February 1988 has been long and difficult.

She was one of hundreds of Pinellas Park high school students traumatized when fellow students Jason Harless and Jason McCoy came to school with two guns. When confronted by school administrators, Harless opened fire, shooting assistant principal Richard Allen in the head, assistant principal Nancy Blackwelder in the arm, and student teacher Joseph Bloznalis in the leg.

Allen, who was also her dean and guidance counselor, would die from his wounds six days later. Harless was convicted of second-degree murder, and McCoy, of third-degree murder. Both were sent to prison and have since been released.

"I was in the cafeteria where it happened. At first, I was pushed back, but when they made us leave the cafeteria, he was right there on the floor at my feet," she recalled.

She had just moved to Pinellas County from New York and could not face returning to the school. Rules at the time prevented her from transferring to another school. She began skipping classes and dropped out of school.

She went to night school for a while and then got a job. She married Robert Proctor, moved to South Carolina, became a mother, and periodically sought counseling help. Though she still shudders at the thought of walking back into her former high school, she nonetheless dreamed of being a teacher. In time, she earned a high school equivalency certificate and entered a junior college in South Carolina.

When her family moved back to Pinellas County several years ago, she enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College, later transferring to USF's St. Petersburg campus.

She has conquered her fears about working in a school setting: "I have no doubts, none at all. The schools try to make it as safe as possible, but no matter where you are, you are not safe anymore. I left my problems at Pinellas Park and that's where they stayed."

Now she is hoping to work in one of the St. Petersburg area schools where she did her practice teaching.

"I am so proud of her," said her mother, Beverly Baker. "It has taken Tammy a lot to accomplish this, to actually come back and be a teacher. It's a big thing for her and all of us. I still remember Tammy calling me that day, telling me to come and get her, that "they've killed some teachers.' "

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