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Brawls disrupt John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg

People inside and outside John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg are pleading for help after a "huge campus disruption" has put a spotlight on discipline problems, including at least 60 arrests since September.

"We have no control of this school," social studies teacher Orlando Martinez said Monday.

The latest incident occurred Friday. In an e-mail to school staff, principal Claud Effiom wrote that two groups of four boys each squared off in the courtyard, spurred by an alleged bullying incident. After Effiom broke up the fight, one of the boys ran away, prompting a crowd of students to run after him "like a mob expecting something new to happen."

It took another 10 to 15 minutes to restore order, Effiom wrote.

One teacher said parents watched in disbelief through the office windows. "If this is not enough to make a strong statement that we need some official strong help on this campus, then I don't know what it's going to take. A death?" wrote math teacher Catherine Robinson, also in an e-mail to staff.

To many, Friday's incident wasn't a surprise.

Between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, St. Petersburg police made 60 arrests of Hopkins students, 22 in January alone. That's far more than any other middle school in St. Petersburg. (Azalea Middle, with 24 arrests, has the second most.)

Three weeks ago, police assigned a second officer to help the school-resource officer. No other school in the city has two dedicated officers.

"He was so busy dealing with all the fights that he didn't have time to do his job," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

Parents, teachers and others almost universally agreed on two factors behind the school's problems: 1) the district's return to neighborhood schools, which has reignited neighborhood feuds that were scattered by busing. And 2) what they see as an inability to quickly boot a handful of chronically misbehaving students.

"We really need to get some spine," said Pinellas School Board chairwoman Janet Clark. "We have to have options … to move these children out of schools and into alternative placements. We just don't do it."

Asked Monday how the district could help, Effiom said: "Get a list (of disruptive kids) from me and move the kids out."

Police records highlight the situation.

Last Wednesday, five students were arrested in four separate incidents. One student was charged with disorderly conduct after he reportedly scattered papers on a teacher's desk and then hit an overhead projector.

But on Friday — the day of the courtyard fight — the same student was arrested again. After a teacher confronted him about taking candy from her desk, he asked if she could handle a bullet in the rear end, police said. (Another student was arrested in the same incident, for allegedly telling a police officer he would blow her head off.)

"The main problem is these students will be back, with no consequences," said Martinez, a former juvenile probation officer. "They get a ride to the jailhouse on 49th Street and they're back the next day."

There have been more serious incidents.

On Jan. 27, a teacher who was seven months pregnant told students to stop playing football in the gym and picked up their ball, according to a police report. A 13-year-old boy elbowed her in the abdomen and grabbed it back.

"The suspect ran away laughing," the report said. The teacher was unharmed. The student was arrested on a felony charge of aggravated battery.

District officials say they have made some changes at Hopkins, including transferring some students to alternative schools. The district has also added support staff: Hopkins has two campus monitors (most Pinellas middle schools have none) and a fourth assistant principal (most middle schools have two).

"There's no question that the district is in full support of John Hopkins and will do everything it can" to improve it, said associate superintendent Barbara Thornton. But "there is no magic bullet."

Parents may not be in a mood to wait.

"We're trying to get him out," said Todd Wood, whose sixth-grader is in the fine arts program. "This school's almost not safe to go to."

"I come up and park, there's police cars out there, they've got a kid in handcuffs," said Ann Garcia, whose daughter is in the dance program. "I probably won't send her (younger sister) here because of this."

Some of the kids said they are fed up, too.

"The problem is, J Hop's a good school, but people think it's bad because of all the fights," said Danielle Russell, a sixth-grader who said her friend was accidentally pepper-sprayed a few weeks ago when police broke up a fight.

But other students are unrepentant. "We like to act out. That's who we are," said eighth-grader Jannell Martin. "When you want us to do all this work, and we don't have time to do it, we get stressed out."

Jannell said she got in a fistfight Friday, with a girl who threw a pen at her. But her friends broke it up before school officials found out.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Arrest roster

St. Petersburg police have arrested 60 students on 63 criminal charges at John Hopkins Middle School from September to January. Three students were each arrested on two charges. Here's the breakdown:

. 29 charges of disorderly conduct

. 8 counts of violating probation

. 7 charges of simple battery

. 4 charges of trespassing

. 3 counts of battery
on a School Board employee

. 2 counts of grand theft

. 2 counts of disruption of a school function

. Single counts of felony aggravated battery of a pregnant teacher, felony threat to discharge an explosive, strong-arm robbery, resisting arrest with violence, battery on a student, petty bike theft, petty theft and failure to appear in court

Brawls disrupt John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg 03/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 1:31pm]
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