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Support growing for suspended middle school teacher

SARASOTA, FL (WWSB) - Adam Nitterauer has a hot new item at the Sarasota Sign Machine.

Stickers that say "Safety First? I support John Russo."

"Just following a couple of little Facebook feeds," says Nitterauer, who has printed hundreds of stickers. "People are like 'I need some, send some to North Port, send some here, we want to support John.'"

Nitterauer and his son both attended Brookside Middle School, where John Russo has taught for 21 years. until he was recently placed on administrative duty and removed from the classroom in February.

On February 15, the day after the Parkland school shooting, a school resource officer had to help Russo and principal Matthew Gruhl detain a 14-year-old student.

After watching security video, the school resource officer determined Russo engaged the student first, put him in a "bear hug," and pushed him against the wall with "no eminent threat." That was enough to charge Russo with first-degree battery.

However, the attorney for the union that represents Sarasota County teachers tells a different story.

"It's very clear on video that the student is not listening to Mr. Russo," says defense attorney Peter Collins, who is representing Russo.

Unfortunately, neither the school district, Sarasota Police, nor the State Attorney's Office will release that video during an active investigation.

Russo's side of the story, however, was published on Facebook by a colleague's spouse.

He says he was leaving campus to monitor an evening track meet when he spotted someone walking towards a crowd of students wearing a hoodie, which were banned that day in direct response to the Parkland shooting.

"That very day to see a student who potentially posed a threat to the school, who was not responding to his requests that he identify himself, who was not responding to his commands to remove the hood, that just exacerbated the situation," says Collins.

Once identified, the student started swearing at Russo and tried to leave. In a panic, he says he grabbed the student's arm to keep him from walking away.

"This student was not somebody who was just out taking a walk," says Collins. "It appears to me, at least from the video, that he was looking for trouble."

Both Russo and the officer say that student fought back, even hitting the principal multiple times.

The boys mother, who is pressing charges, has turned down multiple requests to comment on her son's behalf.

We asked the Sarasota County School District why Russo is facing criminal charges when their handbook clearly states:

"A teacher shall have the authority, while on duty, to come into physical contact with a student... to the degree necessary for the purpose of establishing or maintaining control of students, including to reasonably protect himself/herself."

In an email, a spokesperson for the district says "We are not able to provide information about the current case at this time as there is a state investigation that is ongoing, which precludes us from commenting on disciplinary information."

"This is really indicative of everything that's going on in our state and our country with these talks of arming teachers to protect students," says Collins.

"Here we have an unarmed teacher who merely used hands to detain a student who was violating school board policy, and who was potentially presenting a threat to other students."

It's a scenario not lost on several area teachers, who have expressed outrage and concern for their own safety following Russo's punishment.

Local gym owner Aaron Jaco heard the story from a mutual friend of Russo's. He's ordered one of Nitterauer's banners to hang outside.

"From what I understand, this teacher did the best he could and used his best judgement to make sure that all the other children at this school that day were going to be safe," says Jaco.

The school district wouldn't say if the student was punished, but they did confirm he is back in the classroom.

They also told us Russo has been reprimanded twice in the past for a verbal and physical confrontations with students, but this is the first criminal charge.