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John Hopkins Middle School battery arrests revive concerns about teacher safety

Since last week, three students at John Hopkins Middle School have been arrested on felony charges that they battered their teachers.

Interim school superintendent John Stewart said Friday he will send additional officers to the campus Monday to help students and teachers feel safe.

"I'm concerned any time an employee is attacked or battered or has to engage in a physical act with a student," Stewart said.

• On Oct. 13, according to police, a 13-year-old boy threw pens and erasers at students, then threw a large piece of concrete at a teacher, striking the 36-year-old man.

• On Tuesday, another 13-year-old boy struck a girl during lunch, then shoved a teacher who tried to intervene.

• On Wednesday, a 14-year-old boy pushed a teacher, threw a desk toward the teacher, turned over desks, then threw a stapler at the wall, causing the teacher to clear the class and call for backup, a police report says.

Since school started Aug. 22, there have been 11 arrests at John Hopkins — seven of them in the past two weeks, according to St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. On Friday, in addition to arresting the student from Wednesday's desk-throwing incident, police charged two students who they say were in a cafeteria brawl.

Principal Barry Brown downplayed disciplinary issues in an interview Friday with the Times.

"I don't really have any concerns about discipline," he said. "There's going to be referrals. There's going to be fights. … The one thing we can control is academics."

On Wednesday — the day police say a student threw a desk at a teacher — faculty met to discuss the school's disciplinary data from the past six weeks.

"We were looking at how we can get better as a staff," Brown said. "It's not anything that we're alarmed about."

Hopkins made headlines in the spring of 2010 after escalating disciplinary issues prompted 29 staff members to write a letter to the School Board and administration pleading for help.

Brown was assigned to the school in the wake of that turmoil. In 2010-11, then-superintendent Julie Janssen named him principal.

In 2009-10, Hopkins logged 60 arrests by February and more than 100 for the school year. In 2010-11, it tallied 57 by the school year's end. And with John Hopkins moving from a C to a B grade last year because of rising test scores, many hoped it had turned around.

In an e-mail Brown wrote to administrators late Thursday in response to a Times inquiry into reports of recent arrests, he wrote, "I don't think we have had six arrests all year."

When asked Friday, Brown said only one battery arrest had happened in the past week, plus a trespassing charge.

Late Friday, after St. Petersburg police provided the Times with recent arrest information for the school, Brown and his supervisor, region superintendent Rita Vasquez, called the Times back.

Vasquez said that when Brown earlier disclosed only one battery arrest, he did not think back to the previous week. But there was only one arrest that week, so Brown would still have been short one arrest.

"I really feel very, very confident there was a miscommunication and there was no attempt by Barry Brown to downplay the incidents," Vasquez said.

Yet Stewart said he also got conflicting reports about the John Hopkins arrests after the Times asked questions on the matter. At first, he was told that Brown assured Vasquez everything was fine at the school.

After learning of the battery arrests, Stewart said he was concerned.

"That's upsetting to me. I want everything we do to be transparent as we possibly can and for the truth to be told the next time and the next time and the next time. If someone is not telling the truth, I will not tolerate that."

Stewart said later Friday after getting an update from his staff that he didn't have reason to believe Brown intended to be misleading. He said he would be speaking with the principal Monday. "I just don't think we should be in the business of making things sound better than they are," he said.

Stewart also plans to talk with the district's region superintendents at 7 a.m. Monday about safety and security in all district schools.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

John Hopkins Middle School battery arrests revive concerns about teacher safety 10/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 12:13pm]
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