Students return to school, the scene of fatal shooting


Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2006 at 9:05 p.m.
LONGWOOD - Deputies and security guards swarmed Milwee Middle School on Tuesday, as students returned for the first time after a student was shot by a deputy when he brandished a pellet gun that resembled a real weapon.
The school's flag flew at half-staff and students observed a moment of silence Tuesday for Christopher Penley, 15, who died on Sunday after being shot by a SWAT team member on Friday.
Authorities said Lt. Mike Weippert did not know it was a pellet gun when they shot him, Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said on Tuesday.
The barrel of Penley's pellet gun, normally painted red or orange, was painted black and resembled a real 9mm handgun, he said.
Ralph Penley said he informed deputies the gun was not real before his son was shot. But Eslinger said that information came at the same time Chris was shot and cited a call made to Ralph Penley at 10:21 a.m., where shots can be heard in the background.
"We had no prior knowledge that the firearm replica he was holding was in fact an air strike pistol," Eslinger said.
The teen was unresponsive to negotiations with sheriff's deputies when he fled to a bathroom alcove dangerously close to two occupied classrooms on Friday, Eslinger said.
Eslinger also read an essay Christopher Penley wrote a few years ago, which was obtained from school records. Penley wrote that police will kill someone for pointing a gun at them.
Addressing the students over a closed-circuit television during morning announcement, Principal Lois Chavis said the school is completely safe and there was nothing to fear.
Regina Klaers, spokeswoman of the Seminole County School District, said there was a heightened sense of security on campus, but certain procedures such as backpack checks were not being performed so as to not add more stress to the situation.
Students were subdued and very quiet, Klaers said. Many are still struggling to digest the violent outburst that prompted a code red lock down and evacuation of the school's 1,100 students. She said 107 students were absent Tuesday, an average number when compared to the past two weeks.
A grief counselor followed Penley's schedule to help students deal with the empty seat syndrome. More than 70 students and two parents spoke with grief counselors, who will remain on campus as long as necessary, Klaers said.
"Some came in quiet, just wanting to talk to someone. Some are coming in visibly shaken," she said.
Tim Knoeller, 14, said the scary sounds of Friday's incident were still fresh in his head.
"I was in the back of the classroom and I heard them saying, 'get down, get down, he's got a gun,' " said Knoeller, who crawled under his desk with other students. "We all became quiet and looked at each other and were a little scared."
Students set up a small memorial of flowers and notes at the school bus ramp for Penley. Funeral services are set for Thursday afternoon at Northland, a Church Distributed on Dog Track Road in Longwood, said the family's attorney Mark Nation.
Based on preliminary evidence, Jim Pasco, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Fraternal Order of Police said Lt. Weippert's actions seem justified.
"These officers made a judgment when confronted by an armed individual and they did what they were trained to do, which is shoot to kill," Pasco said. "I am not aware of any policy that calls for anything less than shooting to kill. It just isn't done."
Criminal analyst Dale Yeager of the Philadelphia-based SERAPH firm said school officials should have handled the situation themselves before it escalated. The firm provides safety training and consulting to school districts. "This child shouldn't have been shot. If you call in the SWAT team, the SWAT team is there to use lethal force," he said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is expected to take three weeks to wrap up the investigation, a spokesman said.
Investigators are still interviewing students and collecting more evidence.
Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff, (R-Fort Lauderdale) is spearheading a bill which would require districts to monitor bullying more aggressively and keep victims' parents informed of the progress.
"The problem still is pervasive and it needs to go to the top of the priority list," said Bogdanoff. "The one thing we have a right to expect as parents when we drop our kids off at the school door is that they're safe."
The night before he was shot, Penley told his neighbor Kelly Swofford that a group of bullies at school were picking on him and he planned to retaliate.

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