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Former teacher considers starting over after jail time for 2009 bar fight in Treasure Island

Two years ago, a fight at a Treasure Island nightclub turned a physical education teacher's life upside down. Peter Jonsson was facing a felony charge and jail time.

Now, he has a chance to start over. And Jonsson, who resigned from his teaching job at Belleair Elementary School in September 2009, may try to return to teaching, he said.

"I couldn't teach with the pending felony over my head," said Jonsson, 40, of Seminole. "Now that that's gone, I just have to reapply."

He'll have to find a job opening, but meanwhile, "I'm just going to take care of some things I need to take care of and concentrate on myself and try to figure out what I'm going to do," Jonsson said.

Jonsson's troubles trace back to May 2009, when emergency workers were called to Gators Cafe and Saloon to treat Jonsson, who was injured in a fight outside the bar. He doesn't deny hitting one of the emergency workers who came to his aid, but said he was in an altered state from drinking and from the violent attack outside the bar that knocked him unconscious twice.

Last month, a jury found Jonsson not guilty of the felony charge of battery on an emergency worker. But Jonsson had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest without violence and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico sentenced him to a year in jail.

On Friday, the judge suspended the rest of Jonsson's sentence. Jonsson, who had served just over 50 days, walked out of jail.

Federico instead ordered him to serve probation for a year, with several conditions. He can't drink or go to bars. He must also undergo counseling for alcohol abuse and anger management. And he must write letters of apology to the officers.

Jonsson's attorney, John Trevena, said the judge essentially wanted to teach his client a lesson and "was successful in doing that."

"What the judge indicated in court is that he wanted to send a message to Mr. Jonsson that this is not the type of behavior that will go unnoticed by the court," Trevena said.

The amended judgment came a little over a month after Trevena filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision to give Jonsson the maximum sentence for the misdemeanor.

Among other things, Trevena said, the court relied on Jonsson's prior arrests. One of them was linked to a bar fight in Nantucket, Mass., six years ago, when he was arrested on charges of assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and other charges. Trevena said Jonsson's criminal history was not pristine, but he had never been convicted of a felony and passed background requirements to be hired as a Pinellas County schoolteacher.

He also said Jonsson's experience during military service may have contributed to mental health and anxiety issues discussed during the trial. Jonsson served four years in the Marine Corps, with assignments in the Persian Gulf and in Somalia.

Jason Howard is the firefighter-paramedic Jonsson was accused of striking two years ago.

That night, according to Howard's sworn testimony, Jonsson apologized because the medics had to come out to help him. Howard told him it was no big deal. Then Howard, who is a parent, said he was sorry that Jonsson, who was a teacher, had "to deal with our s----- kids." That's when Jonsson slugged him in the jaw, Howard said.

On Tuesday, Howard said Jonsson was lucky his case turned out the way it did. "I'm almost 40, and he's 40 years old," said Howard, 39. "I've grown up, and it's probably time that he should try it."

Though the past two years have been stressful, Jonsson sees the positives, including his short stint in jail.

"Maybe the judge was right," Jonsson said. "I needed to hit that bottom. I needed to realize some things in my life I have to change."

The experience made him re-examine his issues with alcohol, the people he was hanging out with and the way he was living his life, he said.

"My priorities weren't where they should have been," said Jonsson, who lives with his girlfriend and her 7- and 9-year-old daughters. "It's definitely refocused me."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Former teacher considers starting over after jail time for 2009 bar fight in Treasure Island 06/29/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 12:40am]

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