Friday, July 01, 2005

BB gun lands student in hot water

Forgetfulness, bad timing and a mistake, say David Harper's family, have landed the Pennridge High School student in an alternative school for having a BB gun on school property.

The 17-year-old will begin the school year at the Upper Bucks Alternative School after school officials searched his truck in late May and found a black Airsoft BB pistol with orange tip used for target practice and paintball-like shooting games.

Wendie Harper says her son had no intention of using it and had simply forgotten to take it out of his truck after using the gun over the weekend with friends.

On May 23, David Harper was leaving the parking lot of Pennridge High School and was stopped in traffic at the Blooming Glen Road exit. He was rummaging through his glove compartment for touch-up paint, but the gun was in the way. He pulled it out and had it in his hand with his truck window down when a school bus drove by.

Aboard, a mother chaperoning her child's class trip saw the pistol and contacted the school the next day.

"It was not as bad as it looked," said his mother, who acknowledged, "It looked bad."

"He's not a mean and malicious kid. But that's what (the woman) saw."

The next day, school officials searched Harper's car and found the BB gun still in the glove compartment.

"Walking to the truck (for the search) and I had no idea what was going on," said David Harper. "Later on I remembered it was in there."

Harper has not been expelled, but has been excluded from school for at least a semester, said principal Tom Creeden. The district favors placing students in alternative settings with the hope of having them return without an expulsion on their records.

Creeden called the process a plea bargain. The Harpers don't agree with their son's punishment but decided to forgo a hearing before the school board because if David were expelled by the board it would be on his permanent record.

There have been only a couple of expulsions over the last few years in Pennridge. Unlike some schools, Pennridge does not have a zero tolerance policy for offenses such as weapons possession, said Creeden. Each student and situation are looked at individually.

Ten students were placed in alternative schools last year, he said. The offenses that warrant placement include drug and alcohol uses, weapons possession, persistent discipline problems, violence and harassment.

"We realize good kids make mistakes," said Creeden. "We try not to make a scar for the rest of their life. We develop a plan for David like we do with every kid. Working with teenagers, there are no set rules. We're looking at each kid, each offense and go from there."

Wendie Harper believes her son should be reprimanded but does not agree with the punishment. She described David as a good kid, not a troublemaker and a 'C' student, with some As and Bs.

If David completes the alternative school program, his record will not reflect the offense. Besides classes, the school provides counseling and various forms of therapy. Students are evaluated daily and when alternative school officials feel students are ready to return to their home schools, they meet with the district, parents and students, said Robert Spratt, director of alternative education for Youth Services, which operates the school at Lake Nockamixon.

Police referred Harper's case to the Youth Aid Panel, made up of community members, juvenile court representatives, and a police representative, who make recommendations about punishment, such as restitution, community service or charges.

Pennridge Police Chief David Mettin, whose department has possession of the pistol, said that if Harper completes the panel's program he would not be charged. "It's a large punishment to be expelled from school. That's a very large penalty right there."

David is "not very thrilled" about spending part of his senior year at the alternative school. It means the defensive lineman for the Pennridge Rams will miss the football season. And he doesn't "want to be with people who do drugs," he said.

But his mom said, "I'm determined to not make it a bad experience (for him). He's not there to make friends. He's there to get back to Pennridge."

David has chosen to attend the alternative school over home-schooling or private school because he wants to graduate with his class next June. Post graduation, he hopes to attend either Lock Haven or West Chester University to major in communications or law enforcement.

Wendie said her son just wants to get on with his life and "he won't be having any unsupervised pistols."

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