Sunday, February 12, 2006

Incident over fake gun irks parent (airsoft gun)

Officers responded to Suttons Bay High School Tuesday morning after a parent witnessed a male student holding what appeared to be a loaded weapon to the head of a fellow student in the school parking lot.

But it’s not likely the public would have known about it had the parent not reported the incident to the village police department.

“Law enforcement takes these things seriously, but our school doesn’t,” said Julie Albarado, whose daughter was on the other end of what turned out to be an “airsoft” gun. “It’s a big deal because the school never bothered to call. I didn’t know about it until (officer) Bert Mead came to my house.”

Airsoft guns shoot lightweight plastic BBs that rarely cause serious injury if the recommended face protection is worn, but can put out an eye or chip a tooth if it isn’t.

Increasingly popular among minors who use them for friend-to-friend combat games, the real danger is from law enforcement officers shooting at gun toters, not realizing that the realistic-looking weapon doesn’t shoot live ammunition.

Albarado’s daughter, who also attends the Career-Tech Center in Traverse City, contacted high school principal Sue Rummel, after officers pulled her out of class to discuss the incident. Yet her mother didn’t learn of the episode until Mead came knocking at her door.

Superintendent Tom Harwood confirmed the apparent gun-wielding had taken place.

“The student inadvertently placed the guns in the car to allow another student to borrow,” Harwood explained. “It was a dumb mistake, but there was no intention of taking them into the school.”

State law gives school districts the power to expel students for bringing a pocketknife to school with a longer than 3-inch blade. However, there’s no provision for “look-alikes,” according to Harwood.

It wasn’t the first time Albarado’s daughter has been the victim of violence at the school. In March 2003, her 8th grade daughter was assaulted by two high school-aged girls in the lavatory. Albarado was critical of the administration’s handling of the case in which her daughter’s assailant was given a 3-day suspension and spent nine days in an “alternative educational setting” before returning to classes. The mother of two is wary of what she believes is the administration’s deliberate attempt to minimize incidents and avoid negative publicity about the district.

“Why aren’t they letting parents know what’s going on?” Albarado said. “There’s at least one incident a day between the middle school and high school and no one reports it. Then when the kids ask about it, they are told, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

A Suttons Bay janitor called law enforcement Feb. 1 after he was allegedly physically assaulted while outside at a trash receptacle. Harwood said staff members were alerted to the situation. But no information was distributed to parents. In the days since, the janitor has admitted to fabricating the story and is expected to face charges for filing a false police report.

“How can I warn (parents) about something without solid evidence that anything had taken place?” Harwood said, adding that he can’t control rumors generated by the incident. “What I did have was factual information with a strong likelihood that the incident never took place.”

The janitor, who reportedly had been receiving threatening phone calls since mid-December, has been suspended with pay pending a meeting with union representatives. Before the reported assault, he was also given a few days off with pay upon briefing administrators on the threats.

Harwood, who is preparing to dismiss the janitor, linked the feigned assault to the suspension of another member of the custodial staff in December after a non-physical incident in the boys’ locker room involving a female student. According to documents secured through the state Freedom of Information Act, the custodian was suspended without pay for two weeks, Dec. 19 through 30, based on actions with a student which gave “the appearance of impropriety and possible participation in a situation that could be considered sexually suggestive.”

On the evening of Dec. 9, at the end of a middle school dance, the janitor was reportedly approached by a female student asking to use the phone. The girl was taken inside the boys’ locker room to make a call. Another staff member later entered the locker room and observed the janitor alone with the female student.

“We do everything we can to protect our kids,” Albarado said. “They let us know when there’s head lice, but not about the serious issues.”
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