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Student charged in gun discharge at Bloomfield Middle

A 14-year-old Bloomfield Middle School student has been charged in connection with a gun’s discharge in a classroom Tuesday.

The boy, a seventh-grade student whose name has not been released, was taken to a youth detention center Tuesday, Bibb County School Superintendent Sharon Patterson said at a Wednesday news conference.

Bibb County assistant district attorney Mike Smith said the boy is charged with possession of a weapon at school, a felony, and misdemeanor possession of a pistol by a minor.

During a preliminary hearing Wednesday, a judge ruled that the teen will remain detained at the Macon Regional Youth Detention Center until his arraignment next month, Smith said.

At the arraignment, the boy will have the choice of pleading guilty or not guilty to the charges. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in restrictive custody at a youth detention center, Smith said.

The gun, a .38-caliber pistol, discharged in a classroom for students assigned to in-school suspension about 8:10 a.m. Three students and a teacher were in the room. No one was injured.

After interviewing the 14-year-old and the other people in the room, campus police officers still aren’t sure how the gun got to the school or how it discharged, Patterson said.

Students saw a higher visibility of the principal and school system staff Wednesday, but otherwise it was a normal school day. Counselors were available for students who needed reassurance, she said.

Patterson said 31 students were absent from school Wednesday, just one more than were absent Tuesday before the gun incident.

About 50 parents visited the school Tuesday to check on their children, said Chris Floore, a school system spokesman. By the end of the day, 20 students had gone home.

Patterson said she could not divulge information about the 14-year-old student’s disciplinary background or whether he was assigned to in-school suspension, because of privacy laws.

Although Patterson said the school system has contacted the teen’s parents, she would not comment on their reactions to Tuesday’s events.

Asked whether a teacher in the classroom saw the gun discharge, Patterson replied that campus police officers are reviewing video surveillance footage from the classroom.

After the completion of the school’s administrative investigation, an evidentiary hearing will be held to determine what possible punishment the student may face. The student faces possible permanent expulsion from school in addition to any possible criminal penalty, Patterson said.

“We’re not going to tolerate having guns at school,” she said.

SYMPTOM OF A BIGGER ISSUE

Members of the Bibb County school board said Wednesday they received briefings about the situation soon after it happened, but they don’t know much more than what they saw in news reports.

School board member Lynn Farmer said that is done deliberately, because any student facing disciplinary measures from a hearing officer can appeal a decision to the school board, which renders the final judgment.

“They want to keep us unbiased,” she said.

However, both Farmer and fellow board member Gary Bechtel said the board needs to take a closer look at school safety issues and what measures can be taken to improve safety.

For example, there are no metal detectors at Bloomfield Middle.

“The incident leads me to believe it’s something that needs to be talked about,” Bechtel said. “But they can be limiting and difficult to manage.”

Farmer said metal detectors would be a start, but she would also like to see even more thorough security measures, such as police dogs searching for drugs and weapons, put into place.

“Personally, I’d be very comfortable with metal detectors in every (middle and high) school,” she said. “We need to be very aggressive and proactive when it comes to safety. ... I think we need to run drug dogs in the schools periodically.”

Farmer said the gun at Bloomfield Middle was just a symptom of a larger problem — that the school system needs to take stricter disciplinary measures.

“It’s a symptom of a bigger issue about removing students permanently that don’t need to be there,” she said. “Certainly, in this day and age, we need to be realistic about what goes on in our community. It’s the reality of what we are dealing with — we need to step up as a system.”

After Tuesday’s incident, some parents and family members of Bloomfield students were upset there wasn’t immediate notification of the gun being found. They were also upset over inconsistent and sometimes conflicting information about the situation.

Bibb County has just started to implement a phone notification system, officials said, but they didn’t use it for Tuesday’s situation.

Patterson said a system has been in the testing stages to prepare for use in case parents need swine-flu-related alerts.

In Houston County, an automated phone tree system has been in use since 2004, said James Kinchen, executive director of school operations. The phone system costs about $42,000 a year, he said.

“It’s a very valuable system that really, really helps us,” he said.

Beth McLaughlin, spokeswoman for the Houston County school system, said the automatic calling system can be used to reach every student, parent and employee in the county or can be tailored to a specific school or age group. The calling system can even be limited to the parents of a specific busload of students if it runs into problems.

“We’ve never had to use it for an emergency, but we do always think about that,” she said. “So far, it’s worked very well for us.”

McLaughlin said the system is free for the parents to sign up. She said that the system also is collecting e-mail addresses to notify parents and employees via the Internet.

Houston County parents also are given a brochure that describes other means of getting information to them, such as working with local media outlets and law enforcement agencies.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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