Six teens pummel a 16-year-old Lakeland girl and videotape it. Someone fires a shot into Middleton High School, just missing a student. A lunchtime brawl breaks out at Freedom High.
The school year that ended Wednesday has been marked by scuffles — on campus and off — that hit the front page of newspapers, video-sharing sites and national airwaves.
"Every week, we're hearing about some type of violent act," said Felecia Wintons, the founder and owner of Books for Thought, Tampa's only black bookstore.
She and her husband think they have an antidote.
Hillsborough County has schools that specialize in performing arts, health professions, science, law. Come fall it will have one that focuses on anti-bullying.
In August, Wintons and Bishop Nathan Taylor will open the doors of Taylor Peace Academy, a charter school for students in kindergarten through third grade, in the former Remington College building near Busch Gardens.
They figure if they can reach children early, they'll carry those nonviolent teachings with them the rest of their lives.
"We'll have the opportunity to mold these children's character so they'll know nothing but how to live a peaceful life," Wintons said. "By the time they get to middle school and high school, their approach to conflict will be different as opposed to someone who wasn't taught peacemaking skills in elementary school."
The academy, which will eventually go up to fifth grade, has been a vision of Taylor's for close to two decades. He runs an after-school program at his church, Prevailing Word Worship Center in East Tampa. He noticed that a lot of kids were two grades below level, something he attributes, in part, to bullying.
"When you're nervous, worried, frustrated, fearful, your scores are going to reflect that," he said. "When the person is at peace, they'll get better test scores, they can remember better, they can learn better."
He and his wife have fond memories of their school years, particularly the beginning ones.
"Elementary school was this wonderful place to be," Wintons said. "We just want to bring that same nurturing back to school."
• • •
Officially, peace education has been around since 1980, said Marta Moreno, a facilitator with the nonprofit Peace Education Foundation in Miami. A group of teachers saw the need to develop teaching materials on nonviolence and conflict resolution.
Beyond anecdotes, no one knows just how rampant bullying permeates Florida schools. The Florida Department of Education does not document it, spokeswoman Deborah Higgins said. And Hillsborough officials have acknowledged that it goes largely unreported.
Nationally, the picture is clearer. In 2005, the latest year for which there is available data, 28 percent of 12- to 18-year-old students said they were bullied at school during the past six months, according to a joint study of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. That same year, 2.2-million crimes occurred on campus, the report said.
Worldwide, more than 20,000 schools use the Peace Education Foundation's curriculum, which encourages students to think of creative ways to settle disagreements before they escalate to violence. But Moreno said she does not know of any school that specializes in peace education, as the Taylor school plans to do.
"I haven't heard of anyone doing it that extensively," she said.
• • •
In English, students will write about how they feel that day.
In reading, they will listen to stories about bullying.
The last half-hour of each school day, they will come to something the Taylors call "the peace table." There, students and teachers will act out something, read a story, talk.
"We'll infuse it into the curriculum and then, we'll end our day talking about becoming a peacemaker," Wintons said.
The training won't stop with the children. To gain admission to the school — there are only 162 spots available for the 2008-09 academic year — parents must agree to take weekly peace education classes.
"We can't teach your children peace education all day long and then they go home and something else is going on," Wintons said. "The parents have to be committed to this."
Parental involvement and small class sizes are what drew Tammy Davis, who homeschools her four children in Temple Terrace, to an open house last week. Officials at the school say they will cap the number of students per class at 18.
"I'm looking for a school with morals where they're teaching them not only curriculum, but how to live life on the outside when they're not in school, the things that don't get talked about in regular school systems," she said. "I know it starts at home, but I think it should also be in school."
• • •
The Taylors aren't naive enough to believe there won't be any fights or other disciplinary problems.
"Children are going to face conflict," Wintons said. "We give them ways to equip themselves to be able to handle it."
For the bullied, that means confidence. "If you run from a bully and you don't give them that eye contact, they'll take advantage of you," Taylor said. "Without having to cower down, let them know: 'I'm not afraid of you, but I don't have to go there with you.' "
For the bully, that means correction. "A lot of times, kids don't know that they're bullying someone else," Wintons said. "They're just doing something they've seen someone else do. Once you identify what it is, you say: 'You know what? I've been a bully. That's not good.' "
If a situation does arise, students will go to the peace table. They'll talk about what happened, why it happened, what they can do to avoid it from happening in the future.
If fourth- and fifth-graders are around, they will help defuse the situation. Peace Rangers, Taylor calls them.
"They'll create an atmosphere of peace and say, 'Wait a minute. We don't behave like that,' " he said.
Wintons hasn't entertained the thought of referrals, suspensions or expulsions. "We don't even want to focus on that," she said.
• • •
Still, how do you measure one's mastery of peace education?
Pre- and post-tests will be administered every quarter to see how students respond to questions on conflict resolution. But the real proof won't come until long after students have graduated from the school, Wintons said. Every three years, she and Taylor plan to hold reunions for alums of the academy.
"You can do a lot of testing, but it's really where are you at age 18, 25, 35," Wintons said. "It just doesn't stop once they leave the fifth grade."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5303.