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Colton-Pierrepont turning gun-flashing incident into ‘teachable moment’

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COLTON - The administration at Colton-Pierrepont Central School is working to turn Monday afternoon’s gun-flashing incident that occurred after school into what Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash called a “teachable moment.”

Mr. Kardash explained that for high school students Wednesday’s school day - students and staff were off Tuesday on a snow day - began with an assembly for students in grades seven through 12.

“We tried our best to take it and make it a teachable moment,” he said referring to Monday afternoon’s incident.

It was about 4 p.m. Monday when a car allegedly driven by Connor I. Warden, 17, of Potsdam pulled into the district’s north parking lot, where students typically park.

Also inside the vehicle was Sawyer M. Pignona, 16, also of Potsdam, who was allegedly in possession of a shotgun that Mr. Kardash said he understands belonged to the boy’s father.

After being approached by boys’ lacrosse coach James Nee, who is also serving as an administrative intern in the district, the vehicle then turned around with Pignona allegedly waving the gun out the window as it left the parking lot, where a lacrosse practice was taking place.

Board of education member Tracy Hoose asked Mr. Nee what made the vehicle suspicious.

“As it came around the two gentlemen were wearing bandanas on their faces,” he said.

Even without realizing the people inside the car were allegedly carrying a weapon or attempting to hide their identities, Mr. Nee said he would have went up to the vehicle, as his lacrosse practice was using the lot.

“I was going to meet the vehicle as it was going up the drive to make sure they didn’t go into our practice space,” he said. “I think the driver was shocked when there were people in the parking lot.”

At that point Mr. Nee said they turned around, with the passenger then pointing what he believed was a gun out the window.

In his statement to police, Mr. Nee said, “I noticed the passenger rolled down his window and held out what appeared to be a rifle. I couldn’t tell you what kind of gun it was other than a long rifle style gun,” he said. “The passenger held it out the window and was shaking it while saying what sounded like ‘whoo hoo.’”

Other than giving students an opportunity to discuss the incident and ask questions, Mr. Kardash said the assembly gave he and Principal Randy Johnson the opportunity to use the incident as a foundation for several lessons to be learned.

“One of the things we tried to talk to the kids about was at what point does the conversation get taken to an adult? How guilty would you feel if something happen?” he asked. “It’s not hard to imagine what happened on Monday turning into something else.”

Board of education member Jeffery Angleberger said from what he’s heard that’s exactly what happened, but it came after the fact.

“My understanding is kids who wouldn’t normally rat on their friends were pretty forthcoming,” he said, to which Mr. Kardash replied, “It got pretty real.”

As he responded to Mr. Kardash’s remarks, board of education member Michael Dumas said it’s his hope the final message hasn’t been driven home yet.

“They’ll get a real message once sentencing is handed down,” he said, noting both young men are facing felony charges.

“The D.A.’s going to have a tough time pleading this down,” Mr. Angleberger suggested.

Jo Ann Roberts, a board of education member whose daughter was at the school when the incident happened, agreed.

“It’s an election year for her,” she said, adding that while some people make a case for leniency for the driver she’s not one of them.

“He knew the guy had a gun in the car,” she said. “He’s just as guilty as the other guy.”

That was another of the lessons Mr. Kardash said they tried to teach to all of the students they spoke with on Wednesday from kindergarten on up.

“We talked about being your own person and recognizing when someone you are with is making a bad decision and removing yourself from the situation,” he said, adding he and Mr. Johnson also visited each of the elementary classrooms holding “age appropriate discussions” about what had happened and giving students an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr. Kardash said he has heard nothing but compliments about how the district responded to the situation, although the district has received several complaints about how people were notified, noting several parents he spoke with said they should have received a personal phone call, something that Mr. Kardash said simply isn’t feasible.

In response to that though, Mr. Kardash said the district is discussing the installation of a phone messaging system, but he said no rash decision is going to be made simply as a result of Monday’s incident.

“I think that’s something we have to sit down and discuss,” Mr. Dumas said.

Mr. Angleberger said he thinks people should have a choice of how to receive emergency communications from the school, noting for some a Facebook posting may be the best way to reach to them and for others a phone message or email might be best.

“If I got an email, I would see that quicker than anything else,” he said.

Board President Shelli Prespare-Wilson said the fact that the auditorium was empty, in her mind, shows that the district has done a fine job of getting information out into the public.

“I think the fact that auditorium is empty shows that people have got their answers,” she said.

At the end of the day, Mr. Kardash said he feels like what was a negative situation on Monday has turned into a positive one.

“When we got done it felt like, ‘You know that was a great discussion to have with the kids,’” he said, noting they also talked about rumors versus facts.

Ms. Hoose said she hopes that area students though aren’t the only ones learning lessons from this.

“Hopefully parents are making sure their guns are locked up,” she said.

When asked what the Facebook dispute that culminated Monday afternoon was about, Mr. Kardash said he has a general idea, but couldn’t confirm anything since the postings have been deleted.

When asked how many students were involved, he had a similar answer, noting that would be difficult to gauge.

“The two kids from Potsdam were targeting a student here, who had support from several friends,” he said, adding the “targeted student” was not at the school Monday afternoon when the incident took place.

And while the posting leading up to Monday’s incident have been deleted, Mr. Kardash said social media is “abuzz” with talk about what happened Monday afternoon.

“Students from the same grade levels in schools all over our region have all formed opinions,” he said, adding from what he’s seen those opinions range from “throw the book at them” to “it was just a prank, they didn’t really know what they were doing.”

As for Potsdam’s reaction to the incident, Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said he couldn’t comment on whether the students, who were both released from custody after posting bail, were allowed to attend school.

“We’re investigating the matter to determine the facts so we can make an appropriate determination in terms of the handling of the students that were involved,” he said, noting the district’s investigation is also being aided by the New York State Police.

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