PLANT CITY, Fla. — On Wednesday morning a 7th grader at Turkey Creek Middle School was robbed at gunpoint while waiting to go to school in a park across the street.
The student, who has not been identified, was at Earl Simmons park. Educators at the school say the principal made an announcement to students, teachers, and staff.
A student walking home from Turkey Creek Middle School told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska he was on the phone with his dad telling him about the robbery. The student pointed towards the park and said “that’s where it happened” and kept walking.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested 25-year-old Cody Henderson and charged him with robbery, child abuse and false imprisonment. Henderson has a criminal history including burglary, grand theft and battery on law enforcement.
HCSO says Henderson was speaking the the teen girl when he pulled out a gun and placed it against her torso. He demanded she unlock the phone, snatched it and then ran off.
We spoke to several students waiting for rides at the park. Those students blamed recent budget cuts for putting students at a higher risk to be victims of crime, or get hit by cars while walking to school.
“Their parents have to come and leave them here very early cause they have no transportation,” Corayma Castro said.
Beginning in August of 2017, about 7,500 high school and middle school students who live within 2 miles of their school lost their courtesy bus service. The district is making the cuts as part of a goal of cutting the budget by $130 million per year.
"It’s horrible because knowing they don’t have a ride here, to be transported here, and knowing that they got robbed, and it’s not safe anymore, it can happen to any other kid,” Castro said. “There’s a lot of shady people here. They do drugs and sell other things.”
The robbery happened early in Wednesday morning before class was in session. We found through the HCSO Crime Search database that in a 2-mile span of the school there's been 219 reported crimes in the past year, mostly involving drugs and thefts. The school district says exemptions to the 2-mile policy fall under state mandated guidelines and they most involve pedestrian and road safety in the route to school and not crime.
The school does have a morning HOST Childcare program.
District officials said parents could drop off their children at the school as early as 7 a.m., “it is a fee-based program, but it does give families an option for those who have to get to work,” Tanya Arja said in an email.
After Henderson's arrest she gave ABC Action News the following statement:
We are grateful to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for their quick action in making an arrest. We are always concerned about the safety of our students. We want our families to know we have before and after school care through our HOST program at most of our schools for a nominal fee to help with working families. Times and rates may differ per school. At Turkey Creek Middle School, parents can drop off as early as 6:55 a.m. For morning care only, it is $15 a week. For afternoon care only, it is $27 a week. Teachers supervise students in the program.
Students we talked to are aware of the program but said some families couldn't afford to pay for it, or their parents have to drop them off for school earlier than the 7 a.m. start time.
Isabel Rosales contributed to this report.