AASD denies gun was in school

Altoona Area School District officials are disputing parts of an allegation that a student took a handgun into class during summer school in June.

AASD Superintendent Charles Prijatelj told the Mirror on Thursday that the gun was never brought into the building but instead was buried outside.

A student involved is no longer a student, nor a resident of Blair County, Prijatelj said.

According to the latest amended complaint (see related story) about bullying filed by the estate of Wyatt Lansberry in federal court by attorney Steven Passarello, an unnamed student has come forward to say they were threatened on the high school campus, both inside and outside the school, by another student with a handgun.

The student who came forward said they were standing by the mountain lion statue before summer school on June 22, when a male student walked up to the witness and their friends and showed them a semiautomatic handgun.

The juvenile pulled out the gun’s clip, which was loaded, and told them that “he had a bullet for each while showing them the bullets,” the attorney noted in the latest filing.

The juvenile with the gun was also selling Klonopin pills to other students, the witness told the Lansberry attorneys.

It was pointed out that no security guards were present at the school’s entrance, nor were metal detectors in place.

Had bullets for witness

The student witness cited in the lawsuit said they watched the juvenile with the gun go into the school and a few hours later, prior to the start of a math class, the boy with the gun walked into the classroom.

The student witness said the boy again pulled out the gun and said he had bullets for the witness student’s head, the lawsuit claims.

No teacher was in the room at the time, and because the class was in the basement, there was no cellphone service. The student “took heroic unilateral action and got the other students out of the room and held the door shut from the outside while another student ran for help,” Passarello wrote in the filing.

The lawsuit contends that when the math teacher was found, the teacher did not believe the student witness’ “screams for help in what was nearly an active shooter situation.”

When the teacher walked into the classroom and found out the student was not lying, the juvenile with the gun handed it off to another male student who ran from the classroom, the lawsuit said. Once outside, the second male student allegedly ditched the gun in some bushes before police arrived and took the two male students into custody.

School district spokesman Paula Foreman said Thursday she was unaware of the latest filing but did confirm there was an incident where students were concerned and brought it to the attention of staff.

‘Weapon was found’

Foreman said action was taken immediately.

“A weapon was found,” Foreman said, adding charges were filed in the case, although she said she was limited on what she could say because it involved juveniles.

Altoona police, when asked about the incident earlier this month, said they were aware of the radio call about a gun on campus but had not responded. Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt said the incident was handled by Altoona Area School District police.

On Thursday, Foreman confirmed that the school district’s police handled

the investigation.

“The student is no longer a student,” Foreman said without elaborating.

Foreman also said the district followed up with the students involved in the June 22 incident, something Passarello disputed in the filing.

Notification in dispute

According to the lawsuit, the district did not contact the parents of the juvenile witness who was threatened and the witness’ mother only learned of it from a counselor with a private business who happened to be at the school the day of the incident.

The lawsuit also claims “no lockdown message or other emergency message was ever sent to the parents of the children in the building that date despite policy to do so.”

The district’s police officers did use metal detector wands the following Monday but not after that, Passarello asserts in the filing.

Foreman said as far as notifying the public of the incident at the time, the district is limited because the actors were juveniles, but they do contact parents directly affected.

“The hard part is — what we struggle with is — people want details, and we just can’t release details,” Foreman said.

What details were provided even school board members is unclear.

School Board President Dutch Brennan said there are a lot of rumors that come past the board members but nothing specifically like that.

Brennan reacted with surprise when told about portions of the lawsuit regarding the June 22 incident.

“If it was spelled out like that, then I am pretty confident we would have been told,” Brennan said, adding that he would call Superintendent Charles Prijatelj immediately after the call with the Mirror was over.

Board member Sharon Bream initially sounded surprised by the Mirror’s inquiry but declined to comment.

“I think you need to talk to Dr. Prijatelj about that. I can’t comment on that,” she said.

On Thursday, Prijatelj confirmed that there was a juvenile case, but he had not seen Passarello’s version of the events.

“There is a juvenile case. I will give you as much information I can without violating privacy. There was a child coming to summer school, June 22. On the break between the first and second sessions (of summer school) the child showed other children a pistol outside the building. It was never inside the building,” Prijatelj said. “When those children came in, it never came into the building. They buried it outside in bushes. The students who were shown the gun immediately went to a teacher. That teacher told district police services director Bill Pfeffer, and district police recovered the gun and took the juvenile into custody.”

Prijatelj noted the male student was not present for the morning session and only arrived for the afternoon session.

He said he made the board aware of the juvenile case. He declined to talk about what he understood of the student’s intent with the gun, saying it would only be hearsay.

After hearing some statements from the complaint filed by Passarello, about the student threatening the victim inside the classroom resulting in a student-led evacuation, Prijatelj said the narrative in Passarello’s revised complaint never happened.

Regarding the information of the events involving the gun inside the school, Prijatelj said, “That’s up to Mr. Passarello to explain to you. As far as we know, that incident never occurred on our school grounds.”

Student not in district

“The student was taken into custody. And that child is no longer in this district, in fact, that child is no longer in this county,” Prijatelj said.

Without divulging specific details, Prijatelj said regular education students are expelled for such violations and special education students get a change

in placement.

“Because the student is no longer a resident, the carrying out of that (discipline) falls on the district he is attending. We handled this. … Adjudication of the child was handled through juvenile court. All those things are being dealt with according to current residence, which is not Blair County,” Prijatelj said.

Passarello’s complaint says there were two students involved with handling the gun. Prijatelj said he could not confirm or deny two students being involved.

“We only found one to be responsible,” he said. “I was here that day. His (Passarello’s) statements are conjecture.”

Prijatelj was asked to clarify whether he believed the witnesses in the complaint were lying.

“I’m saying that, to my knowledge — and I was here that day– Passarello’s facts are not true,” he said.

Prijatelj declined to provide the Mirror with the victim’s written statement that was mentioned in Passarello’s complaint, saying it was evidence.

Asked whether the public was made aware of the incident of a gun on campus and why not, Prijatelj referred to school policy and laws regarding juvenile offenses.

“Juvenile offenses are never published. It was handled. I am trying to speak with you as honest as is legally possible.”

By law, juveniles identities are not released to the public, but police departments routinuely release information to the media on incidents involving juvenile suspects, including details of the alleged crime, the age of the juveniles and the town where they live.

Foreman said the issue has been the subject of discussions, and it’s a tough decision as to when the public should be made aware of an incident.

“How do you weigh inciting more fear and panic if it was isolated and handled?” Foreman asked.

Foreman noted the students who alerted staff on June 22 did exactly what school officials want students to do when they see something.

“We’re grateful the kids seem to be reporting things they are seeing,” Foreman said.

COMMENTS