PRINCETON — A Princeton High School student who inadvertently brought a shotgun on campus will be allowed to graduate, but he still faces criminal charges.
David “Cole” Withrow was arrested Monday after he told school administrators he had an unloaded shotgun in his truck in the parking lot.
The teen had been skeet shooting that weekend and left the gun in his truck, said his attorney, Frank Wood. The gun was unloaded and locked in the truck, Wood said. Withrow told administrators about it in the middle of the school day on Monday.
Principal Kirk Denning had recommended a year-long suspension, which would have effectively kept Withrow, a senior, from graduating. Rumors that Withrow had been expelled caused an uproar in the county.
On Thursday, Johnston County schools announced Withrow would be allowed to graduate if he attends an alternative school in Smithfield.
But Withrow, 18, still faces one count of bringing a weapon onto educational property, a felony that carries a potential sentence of three to 13 months in jail.
“The law is very clear when a person knowingly and willingly brings a weapon onto educational property,” Johnston schools’ spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones said in a prepared statement. “We follow procedures set forth in the Johnston County Schools’ Code of Student Conduct and in the N.C. General Statute.”
Wood said he’s happy his client will be allowed to graduate, but he’d like Withrow to be allowed to attend Princeton’s graduation ceremony. “It may not be a big deal to some people,” he said, “But anybody who’s ever graduated high school can remember that night and what it meant to them.”
Friends, students protest online
Students rallied to support Withrow after those early reports that he had been expelled. Many of them point to the school system’s handling of a similar incident two years ago.
In 2011, Princeton High assistant principal Catherine Bennett was suspended for three days without pay for leaving a loaded handgun in the glove box of her car. Students in an auto-mechanics class discovered it.
The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office declined to press charges in that case, investigators said, because Bennett did not know the gun was in the car. It belonged to her husband, who’d left it there.
Students on Twitter are asking why Withrow isn’t getting similar treatment from the sheriff’s office and the school system. Dozens of them posted using the hashtag “#freecole.”
One student wrote: “I felt a heck of a lot safer with Cole and his unloaded gun than Mrs. Bennett and her loaded one!”
A post at “Free Cole” on Facebook said this: “Behind every law is the SPIRIT of the law, and Cole did nothing to violate the spirit of this one.”
By midnight Wednesday, a petition at change.org had nearly 700 signatures. Someone added the phrase “Free Cole!” to the school’s Wikipedia page.
Johnston Sheriff Steve Bizzell said the two cases are different. Bennett “didn’t know the weapon was in the car, so there’s no comparison between that case and this case,” he said. Jones, the schools spokeswoman, sent an email to reporters Thursday morning saying the same thing.
Bizzell acknowledged that Withrow might have forgotten about the gun. But he later reported it, the sheriff said, meaning he knowingly had the gun on campus.
“The point is that he knew the weapon was inside,” Bizzell said, adding that Withrow should have known it was there.
The sheriff said that he didn’t like making the arrest but said he had to.
“Sometimes we have to enforce the law when we wish we didn’t,” he said.
Wood said Withrow did not “knowingly and willingly” bring the gun on campus, a requirement of the state statute. He simply forgot he had left it in his truck, Wood said, and even then it was unloaded.
Although the cases aren’t exactly the same, Wood said he thinks the sheriff’s office should have given Withrow the same treatment.
“I don’t think you’d find anyone who’d say my client knowingly and willingly brought a gun to campus,” Wood said.