For a while I was a regular visitor to John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, which is just down 16th Street S from Tropicana Field.
At Hopkins, like any school, you see what you look for. The central courtyard is wild when full of kids. Its front entrance has a huge gate, like a sliding garage door, that feels a little prison-ish when down.
I liked going to Hopkins, though, and especially its arts-magnet program. Now and then I speak to a class there and find engaged students and teachers trying to do something worthwhile.
It's not all exactly Fort Apache, the Bronx.
This large-scale fight the other day was scary. The big, excited crowd surrounding it was scary. No wonder one teacher declared the place to be "out of control."
On the other hand, there are always going to be fights. (Girls, too. One of my most vivid ninth-grade memories is of a gym fight in which one girl crowned another with a metal folding chair.)
Hopkins has 60 student arrests this school year, an unusually high number. Sixty arrests! And yet, even that does not mean what it used to.
These days, the arrest of a student by ever-present "school resource officers" is a common occurrence. Gone are the days of being sent to the principal's office when it really meant something terrifying, or being taken out into the hall to be whacked with a big wooden paddle by the gym teacher.
To recap, then: There are still good things happening at the school, trouble is always going to happen, and these days kids get arrested all the time for offenses that used to be settled in other ways.
But here is who I would kick right over to alternative school, which ought to be as big as it needs to be:
Students who commit a battery against a teacher or staff member. Period. If we have zero tolerance for plastic picnic knives and aspirin, surely this counts.
Students who instigate repeated acts of violence against other students and do not respond — right away — to intervention.
Students who have proved they are determined to be habitually disruptive to everybody else's education.
I'd be a little less hand-holdy about it than the Pinellas school bureaucracy. Even as the School Board was harrumphing this week that Something Must Be Done, the school superintendent was saying, well, these things have to be studied, etc., etc.
After the harrumphing, the School Board and its bureaucrat-in-chief decided to swing into decisive action … by agreeing to talk about it some more on March 16. Oooh.
One news article pointed out:
The transfer process requires that parents be notified, and that interventions be tried and evaluated. It's more stringent for special education students, who some say make up a sizable percentage of those routinely getting into trouble.
Ah. So there is a "transfer process" that "requires" that "interventions be tried and evaluated." Sometimes this takes weeks. It does not seem too draconian to think, maybe it should take a little less.
Expelling every single kid would make the schools safer but does not help them and makes society more dangerous. Sending every kid who gets in trouble to alternative school is unworkable and does not give them a chance to benefit from intervention.
But when it's time to go, it's time to go. Stern, sure and quick.