JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A day after the I-TEAM broke the news that two rifles were found on the campus of Providence School last month and administrators apparently hid the incident, the school's board of directors sent a letter to parents regarding the school's policy about firearms on campus without directly acknowledging that the incident took place.
New details have also emerged about what led to the discovery of the guns and what's happened to the students since.
Parents we spoke with Thursday still had not been notified by the school that two students brought guns to Providence School on Hodges Boulevard on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
According to police reports, the rifles were in two student vehicles in the parking lot. But instead of immediately contacting the off-duty Jacksonville Sheriff's Office officer hired to be on campus that day, leaders of the private school apparently swept the incident under the rug.
Providence Headmaster Don Barfield is quoted in the police report -- written four days after the guns were found -- saying that the 18-year-old students were "...good kids who made a stupid decision..." and "...both students have never gotten in trouble before."
An email from the board of directors sent to parents about 4 p.m. Friday does not detail the actual incident but instead reinforces the school's policy against firearms on school property, including those in parked vehicles.
“Parents will be immediately notified if Providence or the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office determine any student is in danger. No such incident has occurred,” the letter said.
The email also offers an explanation for the school's decision not to report such an incident to parents, saying “There are times when incidents cannot be communicated due to a simple application of Matthew 18 or by concluding that divulging such information is simply not in the best interest of the students, their families, or Providence School.”
The scripture reference refers to a teaching on how to handle sin within the church.
Guns found on campus
The I-TEAM learned from a source that the incident last month was initially brought to the attention of a school counselor by one of the student's siblings, who was bragging about the older boy having a weapon on school property.
Police said Barfield, along with Upper School Principal Tim Anderson, escorted the student to his truck in the school's parking lot and found the .22-caliber rifle, along with ammunition. A State Attorney's Office disposition statement said Barfield and Anderson saw the gun in a secured case inside the vehicle.
DOCUMENT: JSO report on guns at Providence School
Barfield and Anderson interviewed the student before contacting the hired JSO officer on campus about the firearm, according to the report. The report doesn't reveal what happened to the gun and ammunition after they were discovered, but sources told the I-TEAM that the rifle was turned over to the student's parents before the officer was called. Typically, police will take weapons found on campus into evidence.
The police report also said that an administrator learned of yet another 18-year-old student who also had a firearm in his vehicle at Providence School on the same day. He had a .308-caliber hunting rifle in his pickup truck, the report said.
The disposition statement said the student admitted to school staff that he had the firearm in his truck, but the rifle was not recovered by staff because the truck was never searched.
According to the statement, “There is no witness at all who would be able to testify that they actually observed a firearm in the student’s vehicle,” even though he admitted to possessing it.
Both students told police that they planned to shoot the weapons at a firing range over the weekend.
Barfield told police that he "dismissed" both students, saying that they were both "good kids" and he did not wish to pursue any criminal charges.
The students are now being homeschooled but will graduate with Providence School diplomas. The incident has not affected their chances of going to college. One senior plans to attend a local university, and the other will go to an out-of-state college.
What the law says
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said school administrators don't have the authority to determine whether charges should be filed.
”No, he doesn’t have that discretion. It’s a felony, and the officer takes over from there," Smith said.
Smith pointed out that the Florida law that covers both public and private schools says possessing or discharging weapons at any school-sponsored event, or on school property, or within 1,000 feet of a school is a third-degree felony.
Parents we spoke with Thursday said that since the incident on Jan. 20, the school had yet to contact them to tell them that guns were found on campus. Smith said administrators should have alerted all students and their parents.
”A lot of times with public schools and private schools, they don’t want to show high-crime stats in their schools, so it seems like he was trying to cover it up that a weapon had been found at his school -- especially being a private school, he’s in competition with other private schools,” Smith said.
After being told that Providence School administrators would not answer our questions, the I-TEAM went to Jacksonville police.
"Does JSO know what happened to the weapons?" we asked Public Information Officer Christian Hancock.
"No, I don’t know what happened to the weapons,” Hancock said.
Despite the guns not being taken into police custody, and despite the fact that no arrests were made, police said the off-duty hired officer at the school did follow procedure.
”Essentially, the officer took the report, he got the information that was given to him by school administration, he investigated to the best of his ability at the time. Again, we are talking after the fact,” Hancock said.
Barfield would not speak to the I-TEAM when we went to the school on Thursday seeking a response. He did, however, issue a statement:
"Providence School has a zero tolerance policy on weapons on our property, and we take this very seriously.”
No charges filed
After the police report was written on Jan. 24, the case was given to the State Attorney’s Office to determine if charges would be filed against the two 18-year-olds. The disposition statement, written Feb. 2, says the State Attorney's Office "...will not pursue criminal charges on either suspect. Case cleared."
The State Attorney's Office told the I-TEAM that because no one observed the gun in the second vehicle, there was insufficient evidence to make an arrest. Also, the State Attorney's Office cited a portion of state law in relation to the first weapon that provides an exception for having a gun on school grounds if it is securely encased in a vehicle.
Guns rights attorney Eric Friday said he it would be impossible to file charges against the students based on what the law says.
“The law in Florida is that you cannot possess a gun on school property. However, if you are 18 years of age or older, and the handgun or long gun is securely encased in your car, that is lawful," Friday said.
There are also questions about whether parents of other students should have been notified, but Friday said the real question should be why the guns were in the students' vehicles.
“If the guns were there because the students intended to cause harm to other students, that’s a situation in which parents should be notified. But if the guns were there because students were using them for lawful hunting or shooting activities, and just didn’t take them out of their cars, I don’t see that as a threat to the school, or something that necessarily needs to embarrass these two young men, who were not breaking any laws. They broke a school policy, not a law," Friday said.
We contacted some of the members of the school’s board on Thursday, but no one was available for comment.
The Providence Upper School Handbook, obtained by News4Jax, does contain a paragraph on weapons:
Students generally will be suspended or expelled if they possess any knife, firearm, explosive compound, weapon of any kind, or any item that would violate Florida law 790.115."