Remembering the Pinellas Park High shooting, a ‘precursor’ to gun violence in schools

Remembering the Pinellas Park High shooting, a ‘precursor’ to gun violence in schools

Eleven years before Columbine, 24 years before Sandy Hook and 30 years before Parkland, a school shooting rattled students and faculty in Pinellas County.

Thirty-two years ago today, three faculty members at Pinellas Park High School were shot. Two were injured. One died. It all happened in front of hundreds of students in a crowded lunchroom.

The tragedy at Pinellas Park High School was only the fourth school shooting to ever happen in Florida — the first was in 1915, and the other two occurred at schools in Miami during 1968. There had never been a school shooting in the Tampa Bay area before, and there has never been one since.

“It was brand new. It wasn’t an event that anyone had been through in their lifetime — not in Pinellas county..." said Dr. Nancy Blackwelder, one of the survivors of the shooting.

“It was really just a precursor to the next three decades of escalating gun violence in schools.”

The shooting

The following account is pieced together from the Times archives and a recent interview with Nancy Blackwelder.

Jason Harless and Jason McCoy were both 15 at the time of the shooting. McCoy had a “volatile home life,” so he moved in with Jason Harless and his mother Cheryl.

The boys had been friends since they met in the seventh grade. At the Harless home, a three-bedroom house near Pinellas Park High, the boys shared a room. They slept in bunkbeds and played Dungeons and Dragons.

On February 9, two days before the shooting, McCoy was suspended from school for telling his Spanish teacher, “You piss me off.” This upset McCoy’s mother Antonia, who told him to pack up his things and move back home.

February 10 was supposed to be the last night the boys lived together before McCoy returned to live with his mother. Cheryl Harless let the boys go out, thinking they would visit friends together. Instead, they decided to run away from home.

They snuck back into the house later that night, packing up pillows, cologne, cassette tapes and toothbrushes. Then they broke into the home of Cpl. Charles Parker, a Pinellas sheriff’s deputy. They took two .38-caliber handguns for protection (“We didn’t want to get hurt by perverts,” Harless said later).

The next day, February 11, was supposed to be the first day of McCoy’s suspension. In the morning, the boys split up to bid farewell to their girlfriends. At school, the boys showed other students the guns. It didn’t take long for word to spread to school administrators.

When Assistant Principal Glenn Bailey spotted McCoy in the lunchroom, McCoy ran away. There was a struggle. Then McCoy pulled a gun out of his blue jeans.

The other assistant principals — Richard Allen and Nancy Blackwelder — rushed to help. McCoy was knocked to the ground.

They had no idea that another student had a gun.

Harless saw his friend from a few tables away and started punching the administrators. Joseph Bloznalis II, a 22-year-old senior at the University of South Florida who was interning at the high school, grabbed Harless by the arms from behind. But Harless was able to grab his gun. He lifted it above his head and started shooting

Bloznallis was struck in the left leg. Then Harless shot Allen in the head. Blackwelder was shot in the arm. The bullet went through her stomach and her leg.

“When he actually shot Dick in the head and he fell down, the kids finally got a sense that, ‘Oh my god we have to get out of there,’" Blackwelder said. "They took off running and screaming and falling down on each other trying to get away from the bad guy.”

Harless fled the cafeteria and shot at two officers outside. A bullet grazed his shoulder, and he fell into some bushes, allowing police to take him into custody. McCoy ran to his former girlfriend’s house, where officers found him with a third stolen gun.

The aftermath

“Nobody knew what to plan for.”

Pinellas Park High was not prepared to handle a school shooting, or what happened next. They didn’t even have lockdown drills, just fire drills.

“Nobody knew what to expect, nobody knew what to plan for," Blackwelder said. “They told students ‘There’s been a shooting, go to your buses. We’ve got kids getting on the bus crying, kids getting on the bus not crying. Should we drop them off at the bus stop? Should we take them home? None of this had been thought through because none of us had been through it.”

Pinellas Park High School did have an SRO back then. But he had been out sick on the day of the shooting, and there was no officer there to fill in for him.

“So what if he wasn’t there for a day?" Blackwelder said. “It just all changed when we actually had the first incident and we actually had to evacuate. You can’t fault us for not having the perfect plan in 1988.”

Faculty, staff and students were all expected to come back to school the next day. But even though school was in session, many parents opted to keep their children home.

Teachers didn’t know if they were supposed to go through with their lessons as planned or talk about what had just happened. Some thought there was too much time spent talking about the shooting. Others thought that much more could have been done.

There were about 235 teachers, Blackwelder said. 35 bus drivers. About 1,800 students.

“They all felt like victims of violent crime that day."

The victims

Richard Allen was placed on life support. He died about a week later at Bayfront Medical Center. He was 53.

According to Times archives, Allen was the father of three adult children. He started teaching in his home state of Indiana prior to his move to Pinellas County, where he taught at Largo Junior High and Kennedy Junior High before spending 15 years at Largo High School. He coached basketball and taught driver’s education there before becoming an assistant principal. After working at Largo High, he spent two years as an assistant principal at Pinellas Park High.

Blackwelder returned to Pinellas Park High, but post-traumatic stress disorder from the shooting caused her to leave her position a year and a half later. She went on to work in transportation for the school district, training school bus drivers and other staff members on safety. After she retired in 2001, she started speaking about school safety training across North America and Canada. She’s also spoken on panels at conferences with victims of other tragedies, including the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

Every time she hears about another school shooting, she thinks about what is ahead for the survivors.

“Many times I shed a tear because I know they have a long road ahead of them to recover," she said. "It’s a lifetime for many people. [It takes] years to work through an incident when you’re the victim of a violent crime.”

Jason Harless and Jason McCoy

Jason Harless was convicted of second-degree murder on January 8, 1989. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison, according to Times archives.

Harless served 8 years of the sentence at Sumter Correctional Institution near Bushnell. He started at the maximum security portion of the prison, but was later moved to Sumter Forestry Camp, the minimum security portion. Harless worked at the prison print shop and obtained a high school equivalency diploma. He also took college courses.

According to a 2012 Times interview with Harless, he never planned to shoot anyone.

“If the fight would have never started,” he said. “it never would have happened.”

In a 1988 interview with the Tampa Tribune, Cheryl Harless said she asked her son if he went to the school intending to hurt Richard Allen.

He told her, “No way. He was the only person who was ever nice to me.”

Jason McCoy, who never fired his gun, plead guilty to third-degree murder and three counts of armed burglary. According to Times archives, he was sentenced to six years in prison and served 15 months. He earned his high school equivalency diploma at the Pinellas County Jail.

McCoy went home to Safety Harbor, but has since left the state.

The future of school safety

The Pinellas Park High shooting changed the way students and guns were addressed, according to reporting in the Tampa Tribune. After the tragedy, any student who had a gun, even a toy or a BB gun, could be automatically expelled. And there would always be an SRO on campus during school hours — if one called in sick, local law enforcement would supply a replacement.

Nancy Blackwelder still is a voice for victims of school shootings, traveling across the country for school safety trainings and seminars. She always begins with her testimony of the Pinellas Park shooting.

“It was 31 years ago, so time heals a lot of things," she said. "To me, I’m just giving them ideas on how to stay safe and how to manage children’s behavior.”

Blackwelder is also a certified ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) instructor. ALICE training emphasizes keeping yourself safe until first responders can get to the school, often by creating a barricade or by running.

She still sees a need for people to understand PTSD and mental health after tragic events occur.

“Eventually there’s going to be enough people that are part of PTSD and victimization that the tide will turn," she said. “When enough people know somebody that’s gone through it, then people start waking up to the notion that we need to put coming up with solutions and treatments.”