ST. PETERSBURG — Lunchtime at Bay Point Middle School.
It was turkey and mashed potato day, but cookies were the real prize on the tray. At a cafeteria table, a boy flailed his arms, accidentally knocking the coveted treat out of another boy's hands.
In response, the now cookieless boy reeled back and slapped his friend in the cheek.
Instant regret. He didn't mean to be violent, it just flared up. He leaned in and hugged his friend. He said sorry.
He didn't know anyone was watching.
• • •
Middle school is a hotbed for rowdiness.
Kids are tiny and tall, anywhere from 11 to 14. Hyper, hormonal, impulsive. Now add in adults and rules. Stir, see what happens.
Bay Point Middle knows about the recipe.
The school gets lumped in a category with John Hopkins Middle, currently waging a much-publicized struggle with campus brawls. Like John Hopkins, Bay Point is a school in St. Petersburg that abandoned forced integration more than two years ago. It's a magnet school for math, science, technology and language with a new state-of-the-art math building. It has won praise and accolades.
But it has its share of problems — tardiness, bullying, fights.
Some fights dissolve easily. Other times, students are arrested, taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center or the county jail or referred to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office for prosecution. One incident can produce several arrests.
The 2007-08 school year brought 40 arrests. In February that year, the cafeteria went black during a statewide power outage. It's a moment principal Ann-Marie Clarke calls "the incident." Strawberry milk and apples flew. Several girls kicked and punched a boy.
The next school year, arrests shot up to 76. The extra class period instituted by the school district that year was one source of stress, said Clarke, who called it a "tough year for all middle schools."
Rather than let the school devolve into disarray, the administration decided to try something new. Teachers wrote concerns on sticky notes in the front office. A 10-person committee listened and researched ideas from schools as far as California.
They came up with an ambitious restructuring plan. Students would rotate schedules, starting with a different class each day to eliminate antsy behavior and stay fresh. Kids who were more attentive in the afternoon than the morning would have a shot to excel in everything. And lunch would get a big facelift.
Teachers overwhelmingly voted for it.
"It was such a team effort," said Clarke, a longtime teacher at Bay Point who came back as principal in 2007. "The administration can't do it alone. It's not heaven, but we have come a long way."
This year, arrests are down to 32.
• • •
When students heard about the new lunch rules, they groaned.
"Are we going to do this all year?"
"Yes," Clarke said. "Because it's good for you."
The cafeteria isn't the only place where fights start, but it's the main stage. Kids are out of class. They're allowed to talk. They're full of energy, sitting in the same room.
"They get mad at each other everywhere, but that's a big arena," Clarke said. "They like an audience."
This year, teachers began escorting students to lunch, filing them into the cafeteria to sit with their assigned class. A hall monitor on a microphone now dismisses them, table by table, to the lunch line. She stays on the microphone, guiding wayward students back to their seats, telling kids to dump their lunch trays.
About seven adults, including school resource officer Tom Larzelere, stay in the cafeteria through lunch. It doesn't eliminate squabbling, but it helps squash it quickly. The days of circling and cheering around fistfights are dwindling, students said.
"When we were in sixth grade, everyone was always standing up and looking at something," said Jessica Madden, a 14-year-old eighth grader. "Now, that never happens."
During lunch last week, two seventh-grade boys started to fight. Within five seconds, two adults pulled them apart and took them outside. Campus monitor Lynette Eva clicked the microphone.
"I need everyone to remain in their seats," she said. "Thank you, the problem has been taken care of."
The kids went back to eating.
• • •
Chronically disruptive students.
Clarke feels sad when she hears the phrase. Sure, a sliver have serious criminal tendencies, just like in any society. Bay Point, along with John Hopkins and Azalea Middle, recently identified some to be removed and placed in alternative programs for help.
But most kids respond to structure and guidance. For that, they go to a few favorite people.
There's Lara McElveen, the spunky technology teacher so beloved that students ask her to read their journals. Two years ago, the principal asked her to work with bullies and kids headed down destructive paths.
McElveen, a high school dropout who rebounded to earn a master's degree, talks straight about consequences — suicide, school shootings, jail. She tells them to "own their stupid" moments and move past them.
"I've worked two jobs my whole life," she tells them. "The only thing I own is a '98 Nissan that's paid for because I made the choice to quit school at 16."
There's Tia Murphy, violence prevention specialist. She teaches a social skills class, warning of snap reactions that lead to bigger problems. She brings bullies and victims together for mediation.
"One thing I try to do is build the esteem of even the bully," she said. "Where a lot of these kids come from, respect is the thing they truly value. You can sneak the rules in through the respect conversation."
Earlier this school year, Murphy talked sixth-grader Thomas Ciriello out of fighting back against bullies.
"She asked me to calm down," said Thomas, 12. "She asked me what was in my heart. My heart told me to stop."
Now, he finds her at lunch every day and gives her a hug.
• • •
Tia Murphy saw cookiegate.
Even though the boy hit his friend, she knew he did the right thing by apologizing. His head was in the right place. He needed to know it, too.
Murphy went to the lunch line. She bought a new package of cookies and gave it to him.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.