Fifth grader pulled from school in flap over paper gun

Fell School (Facebook page)
Fell School (Facebook page)
Posted: January 31, 2013

A fifth grader has been pulled from her South Philadelphia school in a standoff between her mother and the School District over an incident involving either the false threat of a gun or a hysterical response to a harmless piece of paper.

What happened at the Fell School on West Oregon Avenue on Jan. 14 depends on which of two wildly disparate accounts fairly describes the event and its aftermath.

The child's mother, Dianna Kelly, said that the incident was a misunderstanding and that school officials overreacted. A School District spokesman disputed almost every aspect of Kelly's account.

In the meantime, 10-year-old Melody Valentin has been absent since Jan. 15.

Melody's mother gave the following account:

On Jan. 14 Melody reached into her pocket to find a piece of paper made into the shape of a gun, which her grandfather gave her over the weekend. She threw it in a class trash can.

A classmate then told the substitute teacher that Melody had a gun and had threatened to shoot him.

Melody and the other pupil were taken to the dean of students. According to Kelly, the dean searched her backpack and threatened to call police even after she said the gun was made of paper.

The next day, Kelly said, the dean and two school police officers entered Melody's classroom, and announced that she had a gun and was threatening students.

The officers patted Melody down and searched her belongings for weapons.

Melody's school record was marked for failure to follow classroom rules/disruption/disrespect for authority with the possible motivation of "obtaining peer attention."

"That little girl does not deserve this," Kelly said. Kelly met three days later with the dean, principal Eleanor Walls, and others without resolution.

Kelly has asked for a meeting with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and said she had hired a lawyer and was considering suing the school for emotional damage to her daughter.

She has kept not only Melody out of school but has pulled her younger daughter as well. She said they will attend a cyber school online and apply to a charter school next school year.

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard had a different version.

According to Gallard, on Jan. 14 Melody told several students she had a handgun in her backpack, prompting a student to inform the substitute teacher. The two were taken to the dean's office, where she said she had a gun. Only later, Gallard said, did Melody indicate it was a piece of paper she had thrown away.

He said the dean and two school police officers came into her class the next day, conducted a presentation on false allegations, and warned students not to exaggerate. Then, Melody was taken into the hallway and police searched her backpack. He said she was not patted down by police.

"We're not going to make any excuses for taking the situation seriously," Gallard said. "The school did the right thing."

Administrators followed all the correct procedures for this type of incident, according to Gallard, one that he said the district is all too familiar with.

"We have had kids of that age unfortunately bring weapons to school, so it's not like this is something that has never happened before," he said. "We are taking these things about handguns and school shootings seriously. Thank goodness that this was just a hoax and there was no weapon."

Contact Karie Simmons at 215-854-2771, or @ksPhillyInq on Twitter.

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