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Deputy overreacted, handcuffed teens say

After returning home from school last Thursday, three high school freshmen decided to walk around their neighborhood before confronting algebra homework and football practice.

They headed toward their old school, Pinellas Park Middle, to visit a favorite English teacher.

But when they arrived on campus about 4:05 p.m., a Pinellas sheriff's deputy frisked the teenagers, handcuffed two of them and placed them in the back of his patrol car, the teens said.

After about 30 minutes, Deputy Rick Helms released the teens and referred the matter to a juvenile diversion program.

"Why did he have to put handcuffs on them?" said one of the teen's parents, John Metzger. "It sounds like a gross overreaction to me."

Parents have filed a complaint against the deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"He could have just asked them to leave," said one mother, Tina Griffey. "He just wanted to intimidate them. That's not acceptable."

The Sheriff's Office said it could not comment on the case.

"All I can tell you is that we did receive the complaint and we're aware of it," said sheriff's spokesman Tim Goodman.

Valerie Brimm, principal at Pinellas Park Middle School, said teens are not allowed on campus unless they're enrolled or receive a visitor's pass. She said deputies decide whether to take anyone in custody.

"We cannot intervene," Brimm said.

The incident began after the three teens returned home from Dixie Hollins High School last Thursday afternoon. Whitney Gallagher, 13, Dean Hill, 14, and Brandon Metzger, 14, began walking around their neighborhood along 68th Avenue N and decided to visit a former English teacher.

Just before the teens crossed the street and entered the school, they encountered several other teens who were leaving. The teens told them a deputy had ordered them off the property because they did not go to school there and said they could be arrested for trespassing.

Gallagher said they thought twice before continuing but decided it would probably be okay because school was about to end.

Hill said his brother is a seventh-grader at the middle school, and he frequently goes on campus to greet him after the final bell rings. It had never been a problem before, he said.

But on Sept. 16, the teens said, Helms stepped out of the office and asked whether they were students there. He knew the other teens had warned them about coming on campus, Gallagher said.

Helms reached for his handcuffs, asked Gallagher to turn around and fastened her wrists, she said. He did the same to Metzger.

"He didn't have enough handcuffs, so he just put Dean's arm behind his back," Gallagher said. He also frisked the teens before putting them in his patrol car, they said.

Once inside, Gallagher began crying.

"I was thinking, "This isn't good. I'm going to get in really big trouble,' " Gallagher said. "I was wondering if I would still be able to get a college scholarship."

Helms asked their name, address, height, weight and eye color, the teens said. After about a half hour, he let them go, warning they might have to attend a court hearing or complete community service. He did not give them a written citation, the teens said. They all went home to tell their parents.

"She was close to hysterical," said Gallagher's mother, Sharon Croom. "I thought someone had tried to kidnap her."

Croom later spoke with the deputy, who told her he wanted to make an example of the teens, Croom said.

Helms, hired by the Sheriff's Office in 2002, is permanently stationed at the school. Under agency policy, he is not allowed to comment on the case.

"We cannot allow students to be roaming on and off campus," principal Brimm said. "It's for their safety."

Metzger's dad said he was upset after his son returned home with red circles and abrasions around his wrists from the handcuffs.

"I like the idea of police on campus," John Metzger said. "But everything about this doesn't make sense. They were going through the front gate, not sneaking through the back. He could have just talked to them."

Brimm said former students are allowed on school grounds after 4:10 p.m. but cannot freely wander around at any time. The school has had problems with teens coming on campus and being "very disruptive," she said.

On Wednesday, Hill received a letter saying he needed to call the Sheriff's Office concerning "pending charges" and that he may be eligible for community service. If he didn't call, the letter warned, the case would be referred to prosecutors.

The parents say their children did nothing wrong.

"I think these kids were treated terribly," Croom said. "If this officer is tired of dealing with kids, maybe he needs to be stationed somewhere else."

Jamie Thompson can be reached at (727) 893-8455 or jthompsonsptimes.com.

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