TAMPA — Debra Dryden was driving a Hillsborough County school bus filled with students to Ippolito Elementary School in Riverview on Wednesday morning when she noticed something seemed unusual.
She had been keeping an eye through the mirror on a 9-year-old boy and an older student sitting next to him. She said it is uncharacteristic for younger students and older students to sit together, and she could tell they were focusing on something in the backpack.
“I heard the other student say something to the effect of, ‘I won’t be picking on you anymore,’” Dryden said. “Then, I was really interested. You keep your eyes open, but you also keep your ears open. You can tell when they’re up to something. It’s kind of like being a mom.”
Dryden monitored the boy through the mirror until they reached the school. As they pulled up to the bus ramp, she saw the 9-year-old take a gun from his backpack and put it into his pants pocket.
She called the school district’s transportation dispatch line, which contacted the school and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies arrived at the school and later arrested the 9-year-old boy, charging him with possession of a firearm on school property. The boy, whom the Tribune is not naming because of his age and because he wasn’t charged with a violent crime, was taken to the Hillsborough County Juvenile Assessment Center.
The boy had a loaded two-shot, .22-caliber Derringer that he first told sheriff’s investigators belonged to his mother and that he had brought it from home, said Larry McKinnon, a sheriff’s office spokesman.
He said he brought the gun to school to show it off to other students, McKinnon said.
The boy later told investigators he found the gun in a park. By the end of the interview with investigators, the boy had given four or five different accounts of how he got the gun, McKinnon said.
The boy’s mother met deputies and her son at a sheriff’s office substation. She denied the gun belonged to her, McKinnon said.
“She was not very cooperative and adamantly denied that the gun belonged to her,” McKinnon said.
The case remains under investigation and detectives will interview the mother again, McKinnon said. The boy’s mother or someone else could be charged if investigators determine they kept the gun improperly secured, McKinnon said.
Dryden, 52, has been a school district bus driver for seven years. This is the first time she has seen a gun on her bus, she said.