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Jury clears student who struck teacher

East Bay High School has a rule about hats: Students can't wear them in school.

Eugene Gomez knew that, so last spring he got special permission to wear a hat over a bald spot, the result of a head injury that required medical treatment.

But on May 14, Gomez wasn't carrying his principal's note about the hat, which meant the 17-year-old couldn't produce it when biology teacher Michael Otero demanded he remove the hat.

Fearing embarrassment, Gomez refused. When Otero reached for the hat, Gomez swatted the teacher's arm out of the way.

On Tuesday, Gomez found himself facing an adult-court jury in Tampa on a felony charge of battery against a school employee.

His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Donald Miller, argued that Gomez, a wrestler at the school in south Hillsborough County near Gibsonton, wasn't trying to bully a teacher. He was only protecting his fragile teenage dignity.

"He was embarrassed" about the bald spot, Miller said. "He didn't want to hold himself up to ridicule."

Gomez "never intended to touch Mr. Otero," Miller said.

Gomez and Otero didn't know each other except as student and teacher, and had never interacted before. "It was an involuntary reflex. Any of us would have done it."

The jury apparently agreed, and found Gomez not guilty after a brief trial.

Miller said later that Gomez, a senior at East Bay this year, already had served a suspension over the incident and that the school board had declined to expel him.

"I don't think it was one that really should have been prosecuted," Miller said.

East Bay principal James V. Thompson said the school took disciplinary action against Gomez, but that it was Otero's decision to press criminal charges against the student.

"Yes, it was a minor injury," Otero said after the trial, "but in a position as teacher, what's next?"

Otero said that last week, a student punched a Hillsborough High School teacher in the face, and the teacher suffered a concussion. "I just can't allow that," he said.

He called Tuesday's trial "a rude awakening as to jurisprudence in America."

Assistant State Attorney John Skye said Gomez was charged as an adult because he was "almost 18," and had a prior juvenile record.

"I suppose different persons could come to different conclusions about charging him at all," Skye said.

"We don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but the statute's there," Skye said, referring to a law that makes battery on a school employee during school business a felony.

"The victim was understandably upset," Skye said. "And the jury felt whatever it is they feel."