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In Pinellas County, student discipline is hot topic — for now

Even before all the fights and arrests at John Hopkins Middle School made headlines, Angela Norris was worried about Pinellas schools being flooded by problem kids.

Her daughter, a fifth-grader at Gulfport Elementary, is zoned to attend Tyrone Middle, where a third of the student body was suspended last year.

"She's not going there," said Norris, 44. She said she'll homeschool her daughter or send her to a private school. "That's how very little confidence I have in this school system."

Student behavior, discipline problems, whether a school is "rough" — all are basic issues for parents. But despite public outrage about Hopkins, it's not clear discipline issues will stay hot. Memories are short, said School Board chairwoman Janet Clark. And other issues, like budget cuts and legislative mandates, compete for the board's attention.

"Every time somebody pushes an agenda," Clark said, "the important stuff gets shoved to the side again." She calls disruptive students "the elephant in the room."

After the St. Petersburg Times began reporting in early March about unruly conditions and scores of arrests at Hopkins, hundreds of readers posted comments on tampabay.com. Dozens, including Norris, wrote letters to the Pinellas County School Board.

"As a former teacher of 37 years, it's about time we come clean with what is really happening in some of the schools," said one letter."

"Instead of attacking each other, I am more interested in what you plan to do to restore discipline in ALL St. Petersburg's middle schools," wrote another, after two board members criticized Clark's use of the term "hoodlums."

For parents, it can be hard sorting statistics from anecdotes, perception from reality.

A school's high suspension numbers may mean a festering problem — or a new principal setting a tone that will result in fewer problems in the future. At the same time, low numbers may mean administrators are forcing teachers to put up with bad behavior.

Through March 31, Gibbs High had 119 arrests, more than any other school in St. Petersburg, according to police data. (At least 45 were for warrants and probation violations. It's unclear how many involved on-campus behavior.)

Regardless, the numbers do not reflect the real day-to-day atmosphere, said Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon, who was appointed in the summer. "You can come and look any time," he said. "The campus is safe."

"There is a unity and a one-ness over there," said Gibbs parent Cassandra Jackson. "The new leadership is addressing (discipline problems) differently than past administrations."

Time will tell if the renewed spotlight on discipline in Pinellas stays or fades. After the Hopkins story, the School Board ordered superintendent Julie Janssen to take action, including removing students who repeatedly get into trouble.

Through last week, 36 students from Hopkins, Azalea and Bay Point middle schools — among the schools with the most behavior problems — were sent to other traditional or alternative schools. (The district says it cannot say where they went specifically because it would violate student privacy laws.) The district reviewed another 25 students, but kept them in their current schools "with updated interventions and supports," spokeswoman Andrea Zahn wrote in an e-mail.

Janssen also made a number of related moves at Hopkins: hiring a new assistant principal to help with behavior. Bringing in portables to isolate problem students. Engaging community groups that promise to help.

Those changes may lead to more peace and less publicity.

On the other hand, discipline may continue to be a top-tier issue because it's an election year. Some candidates for the School Board say it is a priority.

Meanwhile, the district's fundamental schools, which have among the fewest behavior problems, had a record number of applications this year. That has forced hundreds onto waiting lists and put pressure on the district to open more of them.

Norris, the mother of the Gulfport Elementary student, applied to two fundamental middle schools. Her daughter is No. 144 on the waiting list for Thurgood Marshall, No. 255 on the waiting list at Madeira Beach.

Norris said her daughter also loves the magnet programs at Hopkins. But "there's no way, no way, no way I would send my daughter there," she said. "The school should be safe enough for your children to go to. And it's not."

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

In Pinellas County, student discipline is hot topic — for now 05/03/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 3, 2010 10:54pm]
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