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Former Pinellas teacher could get prison time for punching firefighter

BELLEAIR BLUFFS — One minute, a Pinellas physical education teacher was loaded into an ambulance.

The next, he was socking a firefighter-paramedic in the jaw.

The teacher's lawyer, John Trevena, has an explanation:

The medic used an expletive to describe children. And the Belleair Elementary teacher reacted the way he did because he had a head injury and a military combat background — and he had been drinking a lot.

Now, Peter S. Jonsson, 38, who has since resigned from the school district, is facing a charge of battery on a firefighter. A third-degree felony, it carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. The case is scheduled for trial at the end of the month.

Jason Howard, the Treasure Island firefighter-paramedic who was punched in the jaw in the incident last May, doesn't buy Trevena's excuses for Jonsson.

Initially, the inside of his lip was cut and his tooth was sore, Howard said. So far, he hasn't had any medical bills associated with the incident. But he feels Jonsson should be held accountable.

"He did what he did, and he knew what he did, and you pay for your mistakes," said Howard, 38, who has been with the Treasure Island Fire Department since 1999.

The incident began when emergency workers came to Gators Cafe and Saloon to treat Jonsson, who apparently was the victim of a fight. Jonsson had cuts over his left eye and his left shoulder was separated. He also sustained injuries from being hit twice over the head with a bottle, Trevena said.

Here's what happened, according to sworn testimony by Howard:

Jonsson, who lives in Belleair Bluffs, was fitted with a cervical collar and placed in the back of the ambulance. Two Sunstar medics were there, too. Jonsson then apologized to them. He said he was sorry they had to come out.

No big deal, Howard said. It's their job.

Then Howard, who is a parent, said: "I understand you're a schoolteacher, and I'm sorry you have to deal with our s----- kids."

Jonsson slugged Howard in the jaw.

Howard asked his partner to take over.

The next day, Jonsson was arrested.

Jonsson, who is 6 feet 2 and 235 pounds, didn't cooperate, according to a Treasure Island police officer's statement. The officer said he used an electric weapon to stun Jonsson in order to cuff him. Jonsson was also charged with resisting arrest without violence.

This week, Howard explained his comment about the kids, saying he knows some students are tough to deal with.

"My son's great," Howard said. "There are some kids out there that give us a hard time."

Jonsson had four years of active duty in the Marine Corps, serving in the Persian Gulf and in Somalia. He achieved the rank of corporal and was part of an elite force called the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.

"My client's reaction is one of instinct," Trevena said. "We're talking about someone that is a trained combat Marine."

Howard doesn't buy it.

"The military teaches you how to control your emotions," Howard said. "I was raised by a military father."

Trevena says the battery charge should be reduced to a misdemeanor because of what he sees as mitigating factors.

But Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney, said the law clearly calls for stricter charges in such cases.

"The statute says you punch a cop, you punch a firefighter-paramedic, it's a felony," Bartlett said.

So what started this chain of events? Apparently too much alcohol and Jonsson's aversion to guys wearing their pants too low, according to Trevena.

Jonsson, who was not driving that night in May, was clearly intoxicated, Trevena said. Hospital records show his blood alcohol level was just under 0.25, he said. For comparison's sake, that's three times the limit at which a person is presumed impaired to drive in Florida.

Here's what Trevena says Jonsson told a psychologist who is an expert witness in the case: Jonsson was drinking with friends that night in May, when he noticed that a patron's pants were hanging too low. Jonsson tried to remedy the situation and pulled them up. The man became enraged. Jonsson and his friends decided to leave. They were confronted in the parking lot by several people. There was a scuffle and Jonsson was hit twice over the head with a bottle, losing consciousness temporarily.

Trevena also represented Jonsson a couple of years ago. In 2008, Jonsson was convicted of driving under the influence. Pinellas County Schools suspended him for three days without pay for the conviction, according to school records.

Trevena said the outcome of this case will be life-determining for his client.

Jonsson, who worked as a Pinellas PE teacher for five years, resigned in September. If he prevails in this case, he hopes to return to the school district as a PE teacher, Trevena said.

"If he loses, he'll never get another teaching job," Trevena said. "He's cooked."

Times staff writer Rita Farlow and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Former Pinellas teacher could get prison time for punching firefighter 03/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 7:13pm]
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