NEW TAMPA — The text message came over 16-year-old Daniel Wang's cell phone shortly after lunch: Riot in the courtyard between 5th and 6th period.
Freedom High School administrators caught wind of the mass text and barricaded the popular hangout with orange cones to prevent students from congregating. When the bell rang for sixth period, they moved the students along quickly, shouting through a bullhorn and confiscating cell phones along the way.
A few hours earlier, a lunchtime brawl had turned into a huge food fight, shooting adrenaline and gossip through the student body. At least two school officials got hit with fists. Three students were arrested.
The recent incident wasn't the first at the 2,000-student school in Tampa Palms. Several days earlier, a student was arrested after throwing a cafeteria chair at a classmate during a fight.
While fights are not uncommon at the high school level, the spate of brawls at Freedom High School, coupled by the fact that students are spreading the news of upcoming fights via text messages and myspace.com, has parents and administrators riled up.
Senior privileges are being stripped, there's talk of canceling the prom, and administrators are limiting the number of students who can sit at a table at lunchtime.
Some parents are outraged and have threatened to pull their kids out of the school.
"Freedom High School has had an unprecedented number of fights," said Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Jennifer Faliero, who has received e-mails from concerned parents. "It involved massive amounts of people and disrupted the entire schedule. All sorts of rules had to be put in place (to keep the peace)."
Freedom has been the site of more fights this school year than most of the county's 25 other high schools. Freedom reported having 30 fights during the first semester, said school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. Most of the other high schools are in the mid teens, though she did caution that some principals are more conservative in their reporting.
"I am very glad I have a senior but am sad I have a freshman that has to put up (with) this garbage for another three years," parent Debi O'Hara wrote in an e-mail shared by Faliero. "I will be the first one to obtain an attorney and file a suit if my child is hurt during a lunchroom or any other fight on campus."
So why have there been so many fights lately?
Cobbe says there haven't been any more than usual, but the past several incidents have been at lunchtime, in front of hundreds of witnesses.
Two fights on Feb. 22, which resulted in arrests, started in the cafeteria. In the first brawl, two older boys threw packets of ketchup at a younger classmate, Cobbe said.
The kids around them got rowdy, and an assistant principal was knocked to the ground.
In the second incident, two female students got into it when one made a comment about the other girl's skirt being too short. As athletic director Elijah Thomas tried to break them up, one of the girls jumped on his back, threw a punch and hit him, Cobbe said.
The two girls and the boy who knocked over the assistant principal were arrested. The rest of the students involved in the scuffles were suspended.
After the girls' fight, which occurred 30 minutes into the second period, some students didn't get to eat lunch. Students were kept in their classrooms for safety reasons, Cobbe said.
Tampa police Sgt. David Puig, who wrote the report about the fights that day, said officers hung around when they learned of the text messages.
What used to be rumors of an upcoming fight that circulated by word of mouth have taken on wings with text messaging. The situation is potentially more volatile because it spreads to a wider audience, and almost instantly.
"Luckily, almost every time, a student will report it to administration," Cobbe said of the text messages.
Students are allowed to have cell phones, but not to use them during school hours.
On the heels of the latest incident, administrators made several moves, according to parents who have not been officially notified but learned of the changes through their children.
Among them: Seniors would no longer get the perks of early dismissal and early lunch; they would face in-school suspension if they assembled in groups larger than five at a lunch table; they would get suspended if caught on their cell phones; they are not allowed to walk through the central courtyard, which some parents say makes it harder for their children to reach their classrooms on time; and their prom has been threatened.
"This penalizes all the students and seems to me similar to a 'bad parent' reaction," wrote Dr. Gail Norman, whose daughter attends Freedom. "My daughter and her friends said … they feel they are in jail. All of this is very distressing to us as parents."
Cobbe said principal Richard Bartels made those decisions as a safety precaution, but that prom has not been canceled.
Another parent, Gretchen Hebert, who sits on the PTA board, said she wants answers. Her children — a freshman and a senior — come home with stories, and even their versions differ.
"It's all we are all talking about," she said of the PTA. "It's definitely upsetting to everybody."
The PTA board is scheduled to meet with principal Bartels on Wednesday, Hebert said.
"The environment has changed," Hebert said. "We want to know what could be going on."
Faliero said what irks her is that some parents are blaming the fighting on students who are bused in from the University area and calling for a redrawing of the boundaries. The students involved all come from within the New Tampa suburbs, Faliero said.
Hebert said she is uncomfortable with the notion that district lines need to be redrawn. She said her kids wish everyone would just lighten up because it has been tense at school.
Eighteen-year-old Douglas McGee, who said he waited four years for all the senior privileges that he no longer has, summed it up this way:
"These fights are just so unnecessary."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5312.
First semester fights at Hillsborough County high schools
Tampa Bay Tech15
Source: Hillsborough County School District (Numbers are self-reported by the schools)