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URBANA — Saying a strong message of deterrence needed to be sent, a Champaign County judge Thursday sentenced a 16-year-old boy to prison for bringing a loaded gun to school.

“It’s absolutely chilling to think that was brought into our school. Parents send their children to school with the expectation that they are safe and learning,” Judge Heidi Ladd said. “There is no reason for it, no justification for it, absolutely none.”

The Champaign teen, whose mother, stepmother and father were in court with him, wrote Ladd a letter apologizing for bringing a 9 mm handgun with an extended magazine to Centennial High School on Oct. 9. He pleaded guilty to unlawful use of a weapon a week later.

Assistant State’s Attorney Alex Boyd struggled to find just the right words as he argued to Ladd that the teen should be imprisoned due to the seriousness of his actions.

“Something like this is very concerning. Luckily, this gun was discovered before anything tragic could happen,” he said, either accidental or intentional.

Assistant Public Defender Ramona Sullivan asked Ladd to allow the teen to remain in the community to continue his rehabilitation.

“He’s an incredibly nice kid, polite and respectful,” involved in a “complicated situation,” she said. “There’s no evidence that he ever thought about using the weapon. But he had it. He admitted he had it. He made this mistake ... that’s terrifying.”

Ladd said the weapons adjudication is the teen’s third conviction as a juvenile, the others being for resisting arrest and retail theft, and that he’s had six years of “extensive police contacts.”

Champaign police went to Centennial to talk to him about a retail theft the day they found the gun with the fully loaded 34-round magazine in his backpack.

Ladd said despite the boy’s mother’s efforts, he has not taken advantage of resources offered to him during his previous two probationary sentences. She noted he’s failing four classes, is good at art, has used cannabis for two years, and recently started drinking alcohol.

“We live in times where reports of shootings are as common as weather reports,” said Ladd, who was delivering her message about the same time that news was breaking of five people shot at a high school in southern California, apparently by a student.

“This is not a game,” said Ladd, who reminded the teen that if he didn’t make the conscious decision to change, that he would “land in prison or be killed.”

He faces an indeterminate sentence at the Department of Juvenile Justice but cannot be held beyond his 21st birthday. The judge noted it’s much more likely that he’ll be released in a few months, a decision up to juvenile justice officials, not her.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).