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Girl arrested for pointing finger gun in Kansas class was victim of bullies, mom says

Vanessa McCaron says she pleaded with an Overland Park Police school resource officer not to arrest her daughter for pointing a finger, formed to look like a gun, at four of her middle school classmates.

“He said, ‘I will press charges against anyone who I think has broken the law,’” said McCaron, who contacted The Star following Wednesday’s initial story about the incident. “He had such a great opportunity to use his badge to change something in a child, but he chose not to,” she added. “I think this is an insane abuse of power.

“She is a child. She is kind. She’s loving. She’s shy. She is a precocious kid who is passionate about gun control, human rights and cats. That’s what she cares about.”

The girl had been bullied for months by some of the classmates who provoked the Sept. 18 incident, her mother said.

She was picked on “to the point where one day she was found in the corner of the school lunchroom sobbing.”

The eighth-grader, who had turned 13 just days before the incident, was arrested and charged with felony threatening. Police said she was led out of the Shawnee Mission school district’s Westridge Middle School by Principal Jeremy McDonnell. School resource officer Dana Harrison, who is an employee of the police department, handcuffed her outside the building and placed her in a police car before she was driven to a juvenile detention facility.

The Star does not identify juveniles charged with crimes.

McCaron said that a boy in her daughter’s class had asked her, if you could kill five people in this class who would they be? The girl formed a gun with her fingers and pointed at the other students one at a time, and then turned the pretend weapon toward herself.

Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez on Friday confirmed those facts, but also said there’s more he could not disclose. Donchez supports his officer’s decision to arrest the girl.

“The safety of our children in school is paramount, today more than ever,” Donchez said. “We have all seen cases where tragic incidents have occurred, and the first thing people say is, there were signs, why didn’t they see the signs?”

“There were victims in this case who were generally in fear, and that prompted them to contact the school.”

A statement released by police after The Star first reported the story said, “Threats in schools are taken very seriously and treated appropriately.”

Donchez said the school resource officer “did a thorough investigation.” He interviewed the girl and other students involved as well as teachers. “We looked at all the facts and history of the person involved, and based on current and previous activity” the school resource officer made the call to arrest the student for criminal threatening, a felony. She was detained by police and later released to her mother.

“Obviously the district attorney felt there was enough evidence to file the charges,” Donchez said. A hearing is set for Tuesday in the Juvenile Division of the District Court of Johnson County.

McCaron claims the boy who prompted her daughter to point her pretend pistol was among a number of children who had been bullying her daughter at school for some time.

A year ago, McCaron said, another student punched her daughter in the face on the school bus. McCaron said she complained to school leaders about the bullying, but it continued.

After school one day, she said, her daughter told her, “these kids are awful.”

On the day of the finger pointing, a substitute teacher was leading the class, McCaron said. It wasn’t until the next day, after the school received a complaint about the incident through its bully reporting tip line, that her daughter was called to the principal’s office.

Donchez said that overnight the school had received several complaints on its tip line “that students who were exposed to this were generally in fear of this individual.” He said the school conducted an initial investigation “and they thought it was serious enough to warrant that police intervene.”

School officials have declined to discuss details of the incident, citing student privacy laws. But David Smith, a district spokesman, said that in general, pointing a finger pistol might violate the district’s policy against intimidation and bullying. “I might not have anything in my hand, but I might be so clear that the individual definitely feels threatened,” Smith said.

The girl’s grandfather, Jon Cavanaugh of California, where the girl is now living, said he thinks the situation “probably could have been handled in the principal’s office and got completely out of hand.” He said his granddaughter has no access to a real gun and she had no intent of harming anyone. “She was just mouthing off,” he said. Now he’s worried that the arrest could hurt her chances of getting into better colleges or the military.

“She is absolutely anti-guns,” confirmed her mother. “She posts about gun control on Facebook. We have no guns in our home.” And while McCaron said she understands why school officials might be sensitive about a child pointing a finger gun at another student, she believes police overreacted. “I could see maybe a good round of counseling. But geez, handcuffs?”

Last month when two 13-year-old students showed up at the Shawnee Mission district’s Hocker Grove Middle School with guns — the real thing — found stashed in their backpacks, they were charged as juveniles in possession of a firearm, a misdemeanor.

The Hocker Grove principal said at the time that there was no evidence suggesting the teens had planned to use the guns at school.

“OUTRAGEOUS,“ tweeted Jo Ella Hoye, a chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Guns Sense in America. “Bringing a GUN on campus is a misdemeanor? But threatening someone with few half-cocked fingers is a felony with potentially life-altering consequences?”

Hoye, who is from Lenexa, also posted that “Charging the 12-yr-old girl with a felony is something we don’t agree with.”

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe, who could not be reached for comment on Friday, told a a local television station, “You would think that having the actual gun that would be a more serious charge, but in fact it’s the actual threat. And it’s something that maybe we need to look at with the Legislature and reconcile that.”

Howe said the charge would probably not result in the girl spending time in juvenile detention, because she would likely be eligible for a program that carries more lenient penalties.

More than 40% of juvenile offenders in Johnson County enter into “some type of diversion program” that allows them to avoid having a criminal record, said Kristi Bergeron, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

McCaron said that since the arrest, her daughter has been struggling emotionally.

“She is having a really hard time talking about it,” McCaron said. “She feels like rules were made to protect people and wants to know why the rules — against bullying — failed to protect her.”

She had a long talk with her daughter “about what she did and the implications about what she did. I told her that there are shootings every day and it is a scary time.

“She said that what she did is dumb. I’m just sorry she has to go through all this.”

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.
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