TAMPA — Students in nearly every Hillsborough County middle school felt safer last year after the district launched an aggressive effort to quash bullying, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of district climate surveys.
Most of the county's middle schools made gains in students' perception of safety — and sometimes enormous gains — in the year after a high-profile 2009 incident at Walker Middle School in Odessa.
Four students were arrested on charges of sexual battery and false imprisonment, following reports they had tortured a classmate on multiple occasions in the school locker room. Those charges were reduced due to evidence problems, prosecutors said.
But the incident served as a warning call for Hillsborough school officials, who convened a task force to beef up supervision, reporting systems and antibullying programs in schools.
According to the survey — which also gauges teacher and parent attitudes for each of the district's schools — 69 percent of middle school students in 2010 agreed with the statement "I feel safe at school," compared to just 51 percent at the end of 2009.
McLane Middle in Brandon jumped from 26 percent of students feeling safe in 2009 to 71 percent the following year, while Tampa's Sligh Middle moved from 43 percent to 83 percent.
Director of administration Judith Rainone said it's possible the improvements were the result of heightened supervision and awareness.
"More eyes out in the hallway at the change of classes, more eyes on the restroom," she said. "The more eyes you have on duty, the better."
But officials say they're troubled by the fact that large numbers of students in some schools still see the potential for danger within their buildings. At Dowdell Middle in Clair-Mel, just 46 percent of students said they felt safe, up 2 percentage points from 2009.
Walker was one of just a few schools to post declines in 2010, moving from 73 percent to 63 percent.
"I don't think those numbers are nearly where we want them," said School Board member Candy Olson, referring to the survey generally.
She said the district needs to focus on schools whose survey results suggest trouble, and convert the 3,300-page documents into a form that can be easily analyzed for trends.
"That material should be put in some kind of digestible package so staff can say, 'Gee, we have an issue that we need to look at,' " Olson said.
A pattern of problems
Assistant superintendent for administration Lewis Brinson said the district's area directors do check the surveys for potential problems and take action when necessary.
"If there's a continuous pattern, what we'd do is have our assessment team go in there and do an investigation," he said.
To gather the student data, the district randomly selected homerooms and English classes and then checked to make sure those samples were representative, said spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. At the middle school level, most schools reported a student response rate above 70 percent.
Sligh Middle School principal Barbara Filhart said she uses the anonymous surveys to see whether teachers have the tools and support they need to do their jobs.
"We really haven't changed the way we address student problems," she said, reflecting on the 40 percentage point gain in students' perception of safety at her school. "If your teachers are happy, your kids are going to be happy."
Across the district last year, 73 percent of Hillsborough teachers said their principals motivate staffs by creating a "positive school culture."
But the survey also showed that significant numbers of teachers in some schools are frustrated, and sometimes those feelings persist for several years in a row.
At Jennings Middle in Seffner, 37.5 percent of teachers surveyed last spring strongly disagreed with the statement that their principal created a strong culture, and 35 percent felt students were not disciplined fairly. At Dunbar Elementary in East Tampa, 55 percent strongly disagreed on school culture, and 45 percent complained about discipline.
"I expected that, honestly," said Dunbar principal Krystal Carson, reflecting on those numbers. "Basically, there was a breakdown in my leadership team."
She said a lack of unity among building administrators and loose talk in the halls sowed dissension during the 2009-10 school year. Some teachers filed for transfers.
Luckily, the bad feelings didn't spread to the kids: 73 percent said they felt safe in the school, and 80 percent said they believed their teachers cared about them.
But Carson said she was forced to take a hard look at her own leadership style and make some changes. She made sure teachers had time to plan as grade-level teams, and paid more attention to the small stuff.
"Some days, it's time for us to get them donuts and coffee, or it's time to let them go early because it's been a rough day," she said.
This year the B-rated Dunbar has a new assistant principal and lead teacher, and the faculty has rallied around a common vision.
"People are happy, they're smiling," Carson said. "At every faculty meeting, we find something to celebrate. We've had a great year."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.