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Q&A: Five things to know about the Gulfport school bus beating

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Published Aug. 28, 2013

The video of three teenagers brutally beating a 13-year-old on a school bus has aired nationwide, and now the spotlight has turned to the normally more private world of juvenile court.

The three 15-year-old defendants will appear in court on Thursday to face aggravated battery charges. Although Juvenile Justice officials have recommended at least two of them serve probation, many pundits and regular citizens think the teens should face something tougher.

Authorities have said two of the teens tried to sell the younger boy marijuana at Lealman Intermediate School. The victim refused and told school officials. On the school bus ride home, police said those two teens and a third retaliated with their fists. Here are five common questions about how the case is being handled:

Exactly why have officials recommended probation for such a vicious attack?

Lawyers familiar with Florida's juvenile justice system say probation is a common sanction for defendants like these three, who have little or no prior history of arrests. First-time offenders, even those facing serious charges, generally are not sent into long-term residential juvenile programs. Youths sent into those facilities — the juvenile version of jails or prisons — tend to be repeat offenders.

The juvenile system is designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation, said Laura Leigh Snell, senior assistant public defender for juvenile programs. That's different from the adult prison system, which is mostly punitive.

Another reason is that "you can actually make kids worse" by housing troubled kids with kids who are even more troubled, said juvenile justice spokeswoman Meghan Speakes Collins. "Our goal is rehabilitating them, making them realize what they did was absolutely wrong, and helping them get whatever treatment they need, whatever services they need," she said

The State Department of Juvenile Justice initially recommended two of these youths, accused of aggravated battery, be given court-supervised probation. A prosecutor argued for a stricter program supervised by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Later, the DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters herself agreed the teens should get the stricter form of probation. The judge will have the final say.

Is probation the maximum penalty?

No. Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said that from prosecutors' perspective, the strict probation program is a minimum sanction. "They need to be given the message that what they did is wrong … and that there are going to be consequences." It's possible prosecutors could recommend a tougher sanction Thursday, he said.

What about the third teenager?

Juvenile justice officials have not publicly announced if they will recommend probation or something tougher for him. This third defendant is also charged with robbery for allegedly stealing $5 from the victim. At the last court hearing, officials said this third teen was undergoing a behavioral evaluation and that recommendations for him would be announced afterward.

What does the bus driver think?

He thought the sanction would be tougher than probation, said his attorney Frank McDermott, "just because it was well-planned … and they were hell-bent on beating the tar out of this kid."

But the driver also said he's content to leave the decision to the judge, McDermott said

Why didn't prosecutors charge the teenagers with a hate crime?

Although the three attackers are black and the victim is white, that's not enough to make it a hate crime, attorneys said. To qualify as a hate crime under Florida law, prosecutors need to be able to prove the crime was motivated by prejudice based on race, sexual orientation, religion or other specific factors.

Prosecutor Bartlett said there's nothing to indicate the beating was motivated by racial prejudice. Authorities say the teens beat the 13-year-old out of retaliation — not because he was white.

In another recent case that prosecutors did consider a hate crime, a 20-year-old named Cornelius Davis was accused of shooting someone with a BB gun in June at the St. Pete Pride parade. Police say he shouted gay slurs before the shooting. The alleged shooter is black, the victim is white. But prosecutors say it was the anti-gay comments that showed the shooting was motivated by prejudice. That case is also pending.