"The alligator ate my homework" might be a valid excuse at Palm Valley Academy in Ponte Vedra Beach
“The alligator ate my homework” might be a valid excuse for at least one Florida school.
On March 4, an alligator over six feet long was sighted in a retention pond next to the Palm Valley Academy in Ponte Vedra Beach. The school was in session at the time and serves over 1,300 students, kindergarten through 8th grade. Despite a chain link fence separating the pond from the education center, the community decided the large reptile was too close for comfort.
“When an alligator is spotted on or near a school campus the protocol is to alert law enforcement so they can make contact with the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC),” Christina Langston, Chief of Community Relations, tells PEOPLE. “In Florida it is not uncommon to see alligators in or around bodies of water.”
News of the scaly school visitor spread fast. “Some students saw the gator by the retention pond inside the fencing. There are culvert systems so the alligator had the ability to move to other ponds in the area,” said Langston, who further clarified that the gator was not seen crawling through the fence toward the school.
“There was no alarm, excitement or concern by students or staff. The day operated as a normal school day, and the removal of the alligator did not cause any disruptions to instructional or resource time,” Langston tells PEOPLE. “The attention this situation got was from the SJSO Facebook page which prompted media interest.”
Although the large reptile was safely trapped and escorted off the school grounds, the story “doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending” says Charles Mulligan, a spokesperson and media representative for the St. John’s Sheriff’s Office. While the police department received the initial call, it was the FWC who dispatched the trapper. The trapper assessed the alligator’s size and made the decision how to proceed.
As the sheriff’s office states on its Facebook page, “The SJSO does not make the determination regarding the alligator’s status, that is done via state law through the Wildlife Commission regarding this particular species and by its size.”
The police officer in the photo, Deputy Coward, has assisted the trappers and helped to wrangle gators “four or five times” according to Mulligan.
“Many times, when the gator gets over six feet long, they will dispatch the alligator after its been trapped and then the trapper sells it for meat, skin, etc.,” Mulligan tells PEOPLE. “There is a market for [gator tail] here, but they do not kill smaller gators. They let them grow and exist in the habitat. They can grow to be massive alligators, but when they become acclimated to people or are in close proximity to a school, where they might become a danger or are exhibiting behaviors that are potentially dangerous, then the trappers will take those gators and they don’t relocate them.”
Mulligan says if there’s “a decent sized body of water in Florida, there’s an alligator in it. It might be a footer or it might be a twelve-footer, there could be a whole gaggle of gators. When they get to a certain size and they’re in a neighborhood with young kids, they could become a danger. The more we clear land and take habitat, the more the [gators] are getting shuffled. They may be displaced for a while, but then [they find a new home].”
Alligators used to be on the endangered species list in Florida, but “that is no longer the case,” says Mulligan. “But they are still protected. Trappers must be certified and authorized by the state of Florida in order to take them. The population is currently doing well … part of conservation is to control the population, and that’s what [trappers] do.”