ST. PETERSBURG — In a school gym full of kids, with two teachers around, police said the assault took place on the bleachers. It lasted just seconds.
Two 12-year-old boys pinned down a 12-year-old girl, reached under her clothes and fondled her at John Hopkins Middle School on Wednesday, according to St. Petersburg police.
Both boys were arrested Thursday on a felony charge of lewd and lascivious molestation. A kidnapping charge was later filed against the boy who police said initiated the assault.
Both boys were suspended for 10 days and are not likely to be allowed to return to John Hopkins, which is known for its acclaimed arts magnet program and its past struggles with out-of-control kids. More than 100 students were arrested during the 2009-10 school year as the Pinellas County School District and the police department struggled to restore order to the campus.
But arrests at the school, once the highest of any middle school in the city, have decreased in the past couple of years after school officials and community members intervened. Still, data show John Hopkins had 44 arrests from August through March, the second highest behind Azalea Middle.
Principal Barry Brown met with the girl's parents on Thursday and sent a message detailing the incident to parents on Friday. He said the girl has not yet returned to school.
"It's just very disappointing that the two students were arrested, it's very disappointing that the victim had to deal with something like this," Brown said. "It's our job to provide a safe environment every single day. We're looking at our policies and procedures so we can continue to do better."
The victim was not identified by police because of the nature of the allegation. The identities of the boys are being withheld by the Tampa Bay Times because of their ages.
All three are in sixth grade.
The incident took place during a seventh period physical education class around 2:30 p.m.
One of the boys approached the girl outside the gym and began harassing her and trying to grab her inappropriately, police said. She went into the gym to try to get away from him. She sat down on the bleachers to talk to a female friend. Other students were nearby, also sitting on the bleachers.
The first boy followed her inside and continued harassing the girl, police said. Then the second boy joined them.
"At some point they both hold her down," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.
One boy reached underneath the girl's clothes and fondled her, police said, while the other boy held her down. Then they switched so the other boy could also fondle her, police said.
The incident took about a minute, police said, then the girl broke free and ran. She immediately reported the incident.
There were more than 50 kids in the gym at the time being monitored by two teachers, district officials said. One teacher was watching the door as students entered. Another was with a group of students. The district said the incident took place too quickly for either teacher to become aware or react. Neither will face discipline.
"The incident occurred really quickly, it was a matter of seconds," said district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez. "The staff did not see it, but there were many witnesses. The investigators were able to get a lot of statements."
But apparently none of those students intervened on behalf of the girl.
Police said their investigation was hampered because school was letting out. The next day, Thursday, investigators spoke to witnesses and the two boys when they all returned to the school at 701 16th St. S.
Witnesses backed up the girl's story. Both boys denied touching the girl, police said. But police said each boy blamed the other for molesting the girl.
The victim said she had never been harassed by the boys before. A witness, another female student, said the boys had harassed her in the past. But she told police she had never reported the harassment to school officials. A social worker at the school will be available to help the victim when she resumes classes.
Both boys were taken to the Pinellas County Juvenile Assessment Center after their arrest Thursday but released hours later.
One of them was in juvenile court on Friday and pleaded not guilty. That's when his mother, Evette Hunter, 34, learned that he also was charged with kidnapping. Her son denied the allegations, she said.
"He told me that none of this happened," she said. She said her son, the youngest of three, has been suspended before for being tardy and defiant, but never arrested.
"This is way beyond me, I am so hurt by this," she said. "I feel like the school could have called me. I knew nothing about the allegations until they were about to transport my child to (juvenile detention center.)"
The two boys' fate will be decided by the Department of Juvenile Justice and a juvenile court judge. They could be evaluated psychologically and, depending on their past records, sentenced to juvenile probation (which usually comes with a curfew) and an appropriate treatment program.
"It's not only important what happened here but why," said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Conrad Fisher, "and how best to handle these kids."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.