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District Attorney Nicole Duve and Attorney Gary Miles speak at CPCS about Internet Safety

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COLTON - It was mid-March when an online battle between students at Colton-Pierrepont and Potsdam took an ugly turn.

Two Potsdam High School students drove through the Colton-Pierrepont school parking lot with one of the men brandishing a rifle at the school’s lacrosse team practiced in the area.

It led to a lockdown at the school and reminded parents, school staff and students alike of incidents with far more tragic results that have taken place in schools from Colorado to Connecticut in recent years.

Armed with a rifle, Sawyer M. Pignona headed to the Colton-Pierrepont Central School parking lot March 18 “to scope it out for a fight,” state police said at the time of the incident.

Once there, police said, the Hannawa Falls teenager brandished the weapon from a car window. Troopers charged Pignonawith a felony count of criminal possession of a weapon on school ground. A friend who allegedly drove Pignona to the school, Connor I. Warden, Potsdam, also was charged with criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds.

Their cases have moved through the court system in recent months and part of the plea bargain agreement reached between prosecutors and defense attorneys - working with school district officials - called for the sentence of the two teenagers to include an educational component, a reminder how simple it can be for a fight on Facebook to escalate into a situation.

St. Lawrence County District Attorney Nicole M. Duve said in July the plea was the result of an agreement reached after an extensive meeting on July 9 at the school between school officials, Ms. Duve;, Pignona, his attorney, Anthony M. Neddo; Warden; and his attorney, Gary Miles.

Colton-Pierrepont Central Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash commended Ms. Duve’s office at the time and said he was glad to see the school and community involved “in what might be the appropriate first step in the healing process. As an educator, we certainly look at any of these incidents as an opportunity to teach, get better and move forward,” Mr. Kardash said.

——-

That teachable moment continued this week when Ms. Duve and Mr. Miles returned to the school and discussed internet safety with Colton-Pierrepont high school and junior high school students before they were given their school-issued laptop computers for the 2013-14 school year.

They reminded students that the incident that culminated with the arrests of Warden and Pignona stemmed from an internet chat.

“They had no idea what they were engaging in was illegal, much less a felony. It was all precipitated by a bunch of internet communications which I’ve listened to, I’ve seen transcripts of,” Mr. Miles said. “What transpired over the net disgusted me. As a defense attorney, I’ve been around for over 30 years in the courts and not much bothers me, but the discussion that was going on on the net between the students from here and the students from Potsdam was absolutely disgusting. It was scary.”

Ms. Duve opened the presentation by notifying the students and their parents that they would be discussing cases they have dealt with related to cyber bullying, sexting, and other internet safety related issues.

“I know that a lot of you have heard the terms cyber bullying, suicide, sexting, internet stalking, all of those types of things. ... What we’d like to do tonight is share with you a couple of instances where those issues really hit home and really had an impact locally,” Ms. Duve said. “I don’t know how many of the types of things that we run into happen here within this school community but we do have one particular instance where the internet and Facebook in particular played a large role in the events that happened late last school year with a couple of kids from the Potsdam area who came and brought a gun onto the school grounds with them.”

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Warden told troopers that he drove the armed Pignona to the school at about 3:50 p.m. March 18, according to court documents.

“We left Sawyer’s house and he told me that we were going to a parking lot to scope it out for a fight,” Mr. Warden said in a police deposition “.Before we left Sawyer’s house he grabbed a long gun from his house and two red bandannas,” Mr. Warden said. “Sawyer told me where to go and we ended up at Colton school.”

There, Warden said, they pulled into a back lot and “observed three kids in the back of the school.”

Pignona opened the passenger side window and stuck the gun out, Warden told troopers, although he said he was not sure whether Pignona actually aimed it at the youths. Warden said Pignona told him the gun was not loaded.

The school’s lacrosse coach, James A. Nee, told troopers in his deposition that he was with his team when he saw a vehicle approaching at about 4 p.m. He waved his hands and walked toward the car to tell the driver that practice was under way in the lot.

The vehicle turned and backed away, but then Mr. Nee “noticed that the passenger rolled his window down and thrust out what appeared to be a rifle.” “The passenger held it out the window and was shaking it while saying what sounded like ‘whoo hoo,’” before driving away, Mr. Nee told state police.

“I turned to usher the other kids that were still outside to go inside,” Mr. Nee told troopers. “All the while I was hoping that the passenger was not going to fire any rounds in my direction.”

Warden told police that he and Pignona then “went back to Sawyer’s house and hung out for a while.On the way back, I asked Sawyer why he pointed the gun out the window, and he told me that it does not matter,” Warden said.

All students were then brought into the building and all doors were locked, Mr. Kardash wrote in a statement posted on the district’s Facebook page and website. “Once the police arrived to secure the premises, parents were called to pick up students and after-school activities were cancelled.”

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Mr. Miles used this case specifically to talk about the dangers of the web.

“It’s easy. I say it’s easy to communicate over the net and say things, dangerous things. It’s very easy to do that because you’re not looking at someone’s face. You’re not standing there in front of them and you don’t have to worry about consequences like getting punched out or something like that,” he said. “That’s exactly what happened here. This got so far out of hand that these two decided, ‘Let’s go onto school grounds at Colton-Pierrepont’ and they brought an empty shotgun in the car with them. They just had no idea what kind of trouble they had gotten themselves into. ... What you guys need to know is: whatever you put on your computer or on your phone, I don’t care if you erase it, I don’t care what you do to take care of it, it is never gone,” he said.

Ms. Duve reiterated that message. “The internet isn’t very forgiving, it lasts forever. We have countless examples in my office where things have been put on the internet and, in particular, it happens to be more often than not young ladies who find themselves with pictures without clothing on that have been circulated even by text message or instant message or what have you. Those photographs, once they’re on the internet, are darn near impossible to get off and somewhere along the line somebody may be able to get it or find it or track it down,” she said.

Ms. Duve also reminded students that there are victims of internet bullying in the area.

“Not all that long ago, it was around New Year’s Eve, my oldest son started college this year. During his senior year in high school he had some friends over for New Year’s Eve and among those friends was a very good friend of his,” Ms. Duve said. “While we were there, he gets a message from his family that his younger brother has attempted suicide. ... It was a very harrowing sort of thing and a lot of it had to do with how he was being treated by his peers, not just in person and in school, but online.”

“These things happen here. That happened here in St. Lawrence County. That happened close to home,” she added.

——

Pignonapleaded guilty to a felony count of criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds and second-degree menacing on July 12 in St. Lawrence County Court.

He is scheduled to be back in court this month at which time the DA’s office anticipates he will be sentenced to interim probation for one year to allow him to fulfill certain obligations under the plea agreement.

Included in the requirements of interim probation, Pignona will be required to participate in community service in the form of a minimum one hour presentation to be given at all consenting school districts in St. Lawrence County. The presentation is expected to include a discussion about the events leading up to the criminal conduct, the consequences, the impact on others and the community, the role of social media and lessons learned. For every school district that chooses not to participate, 25 hours of community service will be imposed with priority to be given to the Colton-Pierrepont community for the service of those hours.

Wardenwas placed under one year of interim probation last month after pleading guilty to the felony criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds.

IfWarden successfully completes his interim probation with terms similar to his co-defendant, he will earn the opportunity to have his felony plea vacated in exchange for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge.

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