COLTON - As part of a long string of special, court-ordered presentations to possibly over a dozen schools in St. Lawrence County, Sawyer M. Pignona and Connor I. Warden appeared Friday morning at the very school where they say they made the biggest mistake of their lives nine months ago.
Mr. Pignona and Mr. Warden spoke in front of approximately half of the schools students, as well as parents, community members, faculty, and staff who were affected by their decision to go onto school grounds, roll down a car window and wave a rifle in the air on March 18.
For about one hour, the teenagers went in depth into the events leading up to the infamous day, what transpired following March 18, and what they have learned over the past several months.
I honestly believe that everyone in this auditorium knows why were here today, but Im going to say it anyway just to be perfectly clear. These two Potsdam students came to our school last March, drove up, and on the way out waved a gun out the window, and (Principal Jim Nee) was there to see it, CPCS Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash said. It was a very uncomfortable situation that caused high anxiety, it was unsafe and it was a bad decision. They know it. But were an education institution and what do we do with things like this? We turn it into a teachable moment.
The teens, while they would not completely attribute their drug use to the severe error in judgment, noted that they began using marijuana in 2011 and feel that it had a large negative impact on their lives.
Mr. Pignona also went into deep detail of what led up to March 18, what the two young men were thinking that day, and what occurred afterwards.
The events of March 18 occurred because of some issues that started on Facebook. In all honesty, I dont know how those Facebook issues began. It went on for about a month. I dont even know the kids we were talking to, but somehow we grew to dislike each other, he said. Closer to the time of the incident, we started talking about fighting in the Colton parking lot. On the morning of the 18th, life was normal for me. I woke up, showered, and was most likely late for school.
Mr. Warden drove Mr. Pignona to the Colton school at 3:50 p.m., Mr. Pignona brandished the weapon from the car window, and they immediately drove home. Unbeknownst to them, Mr. Nee had seen the car and rifle, and the school was soon put into lock down.
We got back to my house in a few minutes, and I took the gun back to my dads room. I changed out of the clothes I was in and Connor went home. Some of my other friends had come over and were hanging out in my room. I told them what I did and they all started freaking out because they thought I was so stupid, Mr. Pignona said. As they were talking about it, I got a call from a friend telling me that Colton had gone into lock down because someone went there with a gun. I went into panic mode, and I called Connor. I had no clue what was going to happen. I didnt think what I did through and I was scared.
This, Mr. Pignona said, was when the police arrived at Mr. Wardens house. He hung up the phone, and it was the last communication between the two teens for a few weeks.
Mr. Warden said that one week after the police arrived at his house on the 18th, he was arraigned in Canton Court, but he was bailed out and did not spend any time in jail.
Then later on I had my first court date. I was so scared and nervous. I remember sitting there, seeing criminal after criminal go up for different crimes and thinking I didnt ever want to be here. I hated every minute of it, but I knew I had to do it. I had to face my consequences, Mr. Warden said. A while after, Sawyer and I had a meeting at Coltons school. We explained to the teachers what had happened and they said how they felt. It was the first time I heard their side. I saw how scared they were at the time.
Before I was just worried about how it affected me and my family. Then I saw these people that were scared for their lives. I felt so bad and terrible, all I could do was apologize for the way that we made them feel.
For Mr. Pignona meanwhile, life continued as normal as it could be for a while. However, one day after finishing his hockey practice with his brother, he was greeted at his home by police officers who told him to show him where the rifle was. Unlike Mr. Warden, Mr. Pignona ended up spending a few days in the St. Lawrence Correctional Facility in Canton, before his father and brother came up with the $10,000 to bail him out.
This summer, both teens pleaded guilty in St. Lawrence County Court to criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds and were placed under one year of interim probation. Mr. Pignona also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of second-degree menacing.
A plea bargain agreement was reached July 9 between their attorneys, school officials, and District Attorney Nicole M. Duve.
Conditions of the interim probation include 450 hours of community service. For each of the schools that accept the teenagers presentation request at their location, 25 hours will be deducted from the 450 hours. So far, the men have talked at Potsdam High School and Colton-Pierrepont, but have yet to hear many schools final decisions.
Mr. Pignona and Mr. Warden fielded several questions and heard many comments from the audience as well.
I have a statement to make and its not just for the two of you. Its for every student in this room, Colton resident and mother of seven Jackie Johnson said. First of all, I do notice we have small numbers (here today.) Our numbers are small because it is a half day but I can honestly say there are parents that did not send their children to school today because you are here.
While many have criticized the punishment for Mr. Pignona and Mr. Warden for being too lenient, Mr. Nee asked the young men about those who have said they got a bad deal for a misunderstanding.
What would you say to students here or students in Potsdam or in the county that believe you shouldnt have had any charges. It was just a misunderstanding, they were just goofing around. What would you say to those people that think you got a bad deal? Mr. Nee asked.
I feel like if we hadnt gotten charged, we would still be the same. I think getting a charge was an appropriate outcome for this because if we hadnt we would just think we could get away with anything like we did when we were smoking. We never got in trouble for it so we thought we could get away with everything,Mr. Pignona responded.
Mr. Kardash and Board of Education President Shelli Prespare-Weston commented on the change in attitude they noticed between the teenagers between July and now.
From the time that they came to meet with us in July (to now), I noticed a big difference in their expressing themselves. Not so much that they were giving excuses in July, but you could tell by their speech patterns and what they were saying that they hadnt taken responsibility or didnt think that they were the only ones responsible, Ms. Prespare-Weston said. Today I felt like they had a different perspective and Im hopeful theyre on the right track.
The board and I met with you in July and as (District Attorney) Nicole Duve said, that was a very unique opportunity for everyone to get together. Im going to be honest with you, when you left, our discussions were around how we were unimpressed with the idea that at that time you were deflecting a lot. ... I dont know that it sank in, Mr. Kardash said. But I do know that you heard some stories about how the community was affected and I do know that at this point, I dont see you deflecting. You understand the effect you had.