Survivors of Pinellas Park High shooting remember, 30 years later

- Just three days prior to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed, students and staff from one of the first school shootings to make headlines honored the 30-year anniversary of their ordeal.

On February 11, 1988, a 15-year-old student opened fire on administrators in the cafeteria of Pinellas Park High School. 

The shooter, and another student, had stolen .38-caliber revolvers. They took the guns from one of the teen's next-door neighbors, a Pinellas County deputy who went out of town and failed to secure his weapons.

Dr. Nancy Blackwelder was one of the assistant principals at the time. She was shot and survived.

"It was a horrific thing to witness," she recalled.

The cafeteria was filled with about 600 students when a teacher got word that a couple of teenage boys were bragging about having guns.  Blackwelder spotted one of the boys, Jason McCoy, in the lunchroom.

"The kid looked like any other kid. Kind of clean cut, shirt worn on the outside, blue jeans, sneakers, no backpack," said Blackwelder. "Nothing looked threatening about the kid whatsoever."

Blackwelder and another administrator asked McCoy to go with them to the principal's office.  She said instead, McCoy reached into the waistband of his jeans and pulled out the stolen gun.

Blackwelder and other school staff struggled to get McCoy down to the ground. She said they knocked his gun out of his hand and away from him.

"We thought we pretty much were on the way to getting things under control when, little did we know, that his best friend was also in the cafeteria. Also had a gun," said Blackwelder.

Jason Harless, 15, shot at Blackwelder and the other two staff members to try to help his friend, McCoy, get away.

Assistant Principal Richard Allen was shot at point-blank range in the head. He died from his injuries. A student teacher from the University of South Florida, Joseph Bloznalis, was shot in the leg.

Blackwelder was hit as well.

"It was through the grace of God that I moved at the instant that I did, because he was aiming at the middle of my back, but because I turned to look when he shot, the bullet went through my arm, through my stomach and into my leg," said Blackwelder.’

"To me, it sounded like firecrackers going off," remembered Mauel Valenca, an 18-year-old senior at the time, who was eating lunch in the cafeteria.  "It happened so fast.”

Valenca said it took several moments for him and other students to realize they were hearing gunfire. Hundreds of students ran out of the school to safety.

The school resource officer (SRO) was out sick the day of the shooting, and it was not the Pinellas County School District's policy to replace an SRO unless they were absent for at least 14 days, according to reports immediately following the shooting.

Harless and McCoy were first to flee the cafeteria. A set of police officers, who were responding to the school for an unrelated incident, encountered Harless outside the school entrance.

"They had no idea that shots had just been fired inside the school," said Blackwelder.

According to Blackwelder, Harless panicked and fired at the officers, who returned fire, grazing his shoulder before arresting him.  McCoy was caught shortly after hiding at a friend's house. 

The trauma of the school shooting haunted students, like Valenca, for months to come.

"It actually affected me so bad that I didn't go back to school the next day, and I didn't even complete high school because of it. I couldn't go back," said Valenca, who later studied a traded and moved out of state.

Blackwelder chose to return to work when she recovered from the shooting. She stayed at Pinellas Park High for another year and a half before becoming a school bus safety specialist.

After 30 years and countless other school shootings across the nation, Blackwelder said she's encouraged that safer schools could be on the horizon, thanks to students who traveled from Parkland to Tallahassee to demand gun control and safety become a priority of state and national lawmakers.

"I kind of got inspired by those kids who are going off and saying, 'By George, we're not going to put up with this anymore,'" said Blackwelder.  

She added, "Until we can address, significantly, the mental health issues and significantly the gun ownership issues, how are we going to keep a wacko with a gun out of our schools?"

Jason Harless was convicted of second-degree murder. He spent eight years in prison.

Jason McCoy was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to six years in prison. He served less than two years.

According to a spokesperson with the Pinellas County School District, they have several measures in place today to keep students safe.  All of their school campuses now have video surveillance, all school visitors are screened, SROs are at every middle and high school, and the district has a full-time Pinellas County Schools Police Department with 24-7 availability.

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