TAMPA — When the front office heard about a small alligator on campus Monday, Stewart Middle Magnet School administrators said they thought small, like something you could scoop up or shoo away.
"I was thinking it was maybe 1 or 2 feet long," assistant principal Alex Samaras said. "But when I saw it, its head was 1 or 2 feet long."
The 7-foot alligator almost certainly crawled up out of the Hillsborough River, 100 or more yards away. It was first seen strolling through a teachers' parking lot toward a couple of classroom buildings about 7 a.m., half an hour before school.
"It was just walking with purpose in a straight line," said sixth-grade science teacher Marc Pellicano, who saw it first. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared."
After the gator rounded a corner and ended up in a grassy area between two classroom buildings, Pellicano got other teachers and staffers to call police and radio the front office. He also made sure that early-arriving students were kept in the cafeteria, which is across the parking lot from the classroom buildings. "I said, 'Go over there and see that no kids come out,' " Pellicano said. "If one kid sees it, it's going to be a riot."
School employees opened a door and herded the gator into a hallway. School employees then shut the doors at either end of the hallway, trapping the alligator until authorities arrived.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Jon Saltzgaver used a catch pole to snare the alligator. No one was hurt, but the animal was turned over to a trapper to be euthanized so there would be no chance of it returning.
If anything, the alligator seemed calm enough, perhaps even relieved to be out of the heat and on the cool tiles of the hallway, school employees said.
"He found himself a little corner and stayed there until we got him out," Samaras said.
It probably would have been better not to have invited the alligator into the building, wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse said. Outside, it can more easily be dealt with, he said. Inside, it might feel trapped.
"Putting an alligator in a confined space could be far more dangerous than dealing with it outside," he said.
No one knows just how or when the gator arrived on campus, which is secured by a chain-link fence. "He probably went in there after school (Friday), but before the gates were shut," Morse said. "That's a theory."
But principal Baretta Wilson said employees suspect it arrived after squeezing or digging under a fence near the river.
School officials plan to check the fence and take whatever steps are needed to secure it.
The gator had injuries to its lower jaw and one of its toes that suggested it was hurt digging under the fence or in combat.
Later on Monday, the school sent an automated telephone message to the families of its 1,507 students.
"We had a visitor from the river this morning prior to school beginning," it said. "We had an alligator on campus. It was corralled, secluded and taken away by animal control before students were allowed in the building. At no time was anyone in danger."
In the car line at the end of the day, parents had mixed reactions. Keith Jackson said, "They need to check the perimeter of the school and they need to notify parents of these things."
Jackson, 44, who attended Stewart Middle, added, "When I was a kid, there were gators and sharks and stuff back there. You'd be surprised what's back there."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.