South River High student avoids conviction for bringing gun to school

A South River High School senior has been barred from having a firearm for a year, but avoided a criminal conviction Tuesday for having an unloaded shotgun in his car on the school parking lot in February, his lawyer said.

Patrick Bryan Mitchell, 18, whose automatic expulsion from the school in Edgewater was protested by students and parents, made no statements before Anne Arundel County District Judge Thomas J. Pryal, who imposed a year's unsupervised probation during which the teenager cannot have a firearm.

While he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor weapons count, probation before judgment means that Mitchell has not been convicted of a crime and the case can be expunged from the record in three years, or sooner if a judge approves, said his lawyer, Richard R. Trunnell.

According to a police report, the teenager told school officials and police that he had been hunting the day before, was running late for school that Friday morning and left the gun in the car.

Principal William T. Myers said in a letter to parents on the day of the incident that Mitchell had brought the gun to school by accident and meant no harm.

"I want to be clear that at no time did the student make any threats against anyone at our school, and at no time were students or staff in any danger," Myers wrote.

Mitchell declined to comment, but his mother, Terry Egley, said she was satisfied with the outcome in court.

"I'm OK with it," she said. "He broke the law and he got punishment, and I think it was reasonable punishment."

What bothers her is the expulsion, which was automatic under the Anne Arundel County Public Schools code of conduct, meaning that Mitchell is barred from South River's lacrosse team, from the prom in May and the graduation ceremony in June. He is taking an English course online to finish the credits he needs to get a diploma.

Egley said a 10-day suspension would be more appropriate and has appealed the expulsion to the county school board. The board decided March 19 to have the case go before a hearing examiner, she said, but has not set a date.

Trunnell said the board "is trying to run out the clock on Bryan, so his appeal will not be heard by the time graduation occurs."

School system officials have declined to discuss Mitchell's case.

Also this week, Stevenson University's Owings Mills campus was locked down for several hours after reports that someone had a gun; officials said that a pellet gun was recovered from a vehicle and that two students had been hunting near campus.

The Anne Arundel case has raised the debate over state-mandated zero-tolerance policies and has become a rallying point for South River students and parents, many of whom say the punishment does not fit the crime.

Days after his arrest, hundreds at the school of 2,224 students wore camouflage as a show of support, and many turned up in homemade T-shirts marked with the hashtag #FreeBryan. Days later, parents held a rally at county school system headquarters.

"I've heard equally intense debate on both sides," said Emma Stephenson, a South River senior who is the opinion op-ed and online editor for the school newspaper, The Current. On one hand, she said, Mitchell meant no harm and many feel bad that this happened. On the other, school policy is clear about guns on school grounds, and for reasons she can understand.

"What if someone got into the car and did something?" said Stephenson. "You never know what kind of crazy people are walking around."

Senior Sarah Norris, who said she's been a friend of Mitchell's since they were children, does not find that argument persuasive.

"We can play 'what if' all day," she said, noting that the incident did not disrupt classes and that no one knew about it until the school announced it.

"No one was even scared," she said. "It's not like we evacuated the school; it's not like anything crazy happened."

Brandie Andrews, whose daughter is a South River junior and son graduated last year, said expulsion seems too harsh.

"I don't see how expelling him from school with three months left in his senior year fits the crime," Andrews said. "I believe he deserves some punishment. I don't believe a full expulsion is necessary."

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