Parents of middle-school shooter urge treatment

Monday, June 25, 2007

JOPLIN, Mo. -- The Jasper County teen accused of firing an assault rifle inside his middle school last fall was subjected for years to abuse at school that his teachers ignored, the boy's parents told the Joplin Globe.

Norma and Greg White also blame themselves, saying they should have listened to their son when he repeatedly said how much he disliked school and asked to be home-schooled.

Instead, Thomas White, 14, is facing being tried as an adult on multiple felonies and his father is serving an 18-month sentence for illegal possession of firearms in the family's home.

"He's a good kid, and we let him down," Greg White told the newspaper.

Thomas White on Oct. 9 took one of his father's assault rifles to Memorial Middle School, fired a single shot into the ceiling of a school hallway and then allegedly tried to shoot the school principal as he was being ushered from the school. The gun jammed.

He has been certified to stand trial as an adult on two counts of first-degree assault and one count each of unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action and attempted escape.

His public defenders have asked Circuit Judge David Mouton to remand the case to juvenile court. Circuit Judge William Crawford, who retired last year, certified Thomas as an adult, saying he was concerned about the seriousness of the crime and the danger it posed to the community.

The Whites said they've looked at past cases involving school shootings and can't find another example of a juvenile certified to be tried as an adult when it didn't involve any deaths or injuries.

"He needs punishment," Greg White said. "We believe in the rule of the law. There's got to be punishment and consequences for actions."

But he said his son is too young to be tried as an adult.

The Whites have argued that their son could get better treatment in the juvenile court system, adding that if Thomas is sent to an adult prison, he may not be able to defend himself.

His parents said he has never been a troublemaker at school.

"I think the kid deserves at least one chance at rehabilitation," Greg White said.

He added that, like many teens the same age as his son, Thomas doesn't have the mental maturity to understand the long-term effects of his actions. He said his son didn't understand how his future would be shaped by his taking the gun to school.

During Thomas' certification hearing, a psychologist testified that he believed the teen was just trying to get expelled.

It fits in with years of unhappiness the teen regularly communicated to his parents about school. Norma White said her son drew teachers yelling at him as early as elementary school, even finding him sitting on the porch and crying about it.

In middle school, his mother said, fellow students insulted him and her half-Mexican heritage -- he was frequently called a "beaner" -- and subjected to vocal and sometimes physical abuse. He had his head slammed in lockers and his hand stomped on, she said.

Thomas didn't notify teachers or administrators about the abuse, she said, because he said he had seen teachers walk away from students complaining of similar abuse.

Greg White has his own problems after being convicted of keeping several firearms in a locked cabinet in the family's home. Convicted in 1980 of attempted burglary in Florida and in 1988 of a drug charge in California, he is banned from possessing firearms.

He said he thought being prohibited from "possession" of firearms meant he wasn't supposed to be found carrying or buying weapons. The Whites said many of the guns were registered in Norma White's name and were acquired as hand-me-downs from relatives.

"We didn't go out and buy a bunch of guns," Greg White said.

The family, which includes Thomas and two younger siblings, will have to do without Greg White's income as a heavy-equipment mechanic for at least 15 months.

As for his son, one sentencing option available to the adult court if Thomas is convicted is called dual jurisdiction. A 1995 state law allows local judges to place juveniles convicted of adult crimes in a Division of Youth Services program housed in Montgomery City and suspend their adult sentence.

While there, they can continue general education or vocational training and receive counseling and medical services. If they do well and complete the program, they don't serve their adult sentence.

At 17, a local judge determines if they're ready for probation, should be sent to adult prison or sent back to Montgomery City for more treatment.

"History tells us that between the ages of 17 and 18, nobody's been ready to go home," said Brent Buerck, senior program administrator for the division, adding that most go back to Montgomery City.

Buerck said only 17 percent of those who complete the program go on to break the law again.

But Thomas' parents aren't sold on dual jurisdiction. They are worried he could be lumped in with more violent juveniles, eventually be sent to adult prison, and could have a more permanent mark on his record.

They said two psychologists who have talked to their son say he's the least risk to re-offend.

Everybody looks at him like he's a monster, and he's not that way at all," Norma White said. "He's just a regular kid."

Information from: The Joplin Globe,

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