ST. PETERSBURG — Every time Lloyd Thomas dropped his sixth-grader off at John Hopkins Middle School, he'd wonder: Is this the day my kid gets the tar beat out of him?
Fights. Racial slurs. Kids yelling at teachers. The school was a "powder keg," Thomas concluded.
And then it happened. After a PE teacher left class early one day, two students held Thomas' son while a third slammed him in the face, twice, with a basketball thrown at close range.
Thomas' son is now at Meadowlawn Middle.
"I guarantee you there's a hundred kids in the school who want to get out and can't," Thomas said.
Just three years ago, Hopkins, in a predominantly black neighborhood in St. Petersburg, was a model for voluntary integration in Pinellas schools, a hopeful symbol of diversity. Parents gushed about its magnet programs, its award-winning student newspaper, its soaring orchestra.
They still do.
But now those programs are at risk of collapse, undermined by stories about brawls in the halls and wild kids disrupting classrooms with no real consequences.
Black parents are angry that their kids may be trapped in an out-of-control school. White parents are threatening to take their kids elsewhere.
Others are choosing not to go to Hopkins in the first place.
Last year, 1,026 parents applied for the school's magnet programs. This year, 570 did.
There are many reasons why a school implodes. But in this case, just about everybody points to one big one: the shift to neighborhood schools. Everybody knew that when that happened, low-income and struggling students would be concentrated in a few schools instead of being dispersed to many through busing.
So did the district think through the consequences? Did it plan well for the transition? Some say no.
"We were so wrapped in how we were going to move them, transportation costs. All those things took precedence over, 'Once they're back, there's going to be problems,' '' said board member Mary Brown. "We are paying the price for not thinking ahead."
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It was a fight between two groups of boys that put a spotlight on John Hopkins this past week. But it was a historic decision more than two years ago that may have set their confrontation in motion.
That's when the Pinellas County School Board voted to abandon a decades-long effort at forced integration and return to neighborhood schools. Many parents, black and white, cheered that decision.
But the result may have been more than they anticipated.
Since the 2007-08 school year, the percentage of black students at Meadowlawn Middle has dropped 14 percent; at Tyrone Middle, 15 percent; at Azalea Middle, 17 percent. But at both Bay Point Middle and Hopkins, the percentage has climbed 13 percent, from 43 to 56 percent.
Over the same period, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch has grown (from 54 to 59 percent). No other middle school in Pinellas has more students who are over age for their grade levels (236). And according to principal Claud Effiom, Hopkins has the highest number of learning disabled students in the district (118 among the over-age students alone).
When the School Board decided to return to neighborhood schools, Brown said, it discussed the need for more staff and other resources — not just for Hopkins, but for other schools that would be hit by waves of challenging students.
But it's unclear if the district followed through. Brown has asked for statistics and other information to find the answer.
"Something is wrong," she said. "I don't know if we're doing what we promised."
Others say the district couldn't live up to its promises, because the return to neighborhood schools collided with another historic event: the worst budget cuts for Pinellas in decades.
"Nobody has enough resources. I don't," Effiom said. But there are "no excuses. It's something we have to get done."
Felecial Sturgis thinks she has the solution: "These kids need to be kicked out and sent to an alternative school."
Sturgis was proud when her son was promoted recently from fifth grade to middle school — but her joy was tempered by his new school: Hopkins. She is one of those black parents who feels trapped.
"I didn't want him going there because I knew what was happening there," she said. "But I had no choice."
It's his neighborhood school.
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The return to neighborhood schools opened the door to another challenge: neighborhood feuds that used to be defused when buses split up potential combatants.
The Feb. 26 fight at John Hopkins is a case in point.
It started the night before, police said, when one group of boys chased another boy home. The next day, it spilled over into the school. The students were from rival neighborhoods: Jordan Park and Harbordale.
"That's the genesis of a lot of these issues," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "Little things that happen in the neighborhood that are being brought into the school."
Should the district have foreseen these problems? Some say yes.
"My understanding is that you have Jordan Park, Bethel Heights and Harbordale kids, whose neighborhoods were already in tension, now trying to study together and work together in a school setting," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson.
It might be time to start over, the legislator said: "Maybe they need to map the zones better."
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Help may be on the way.
Officials with the local NAACP and several ministers met with Hopkins officials on Friday, pledging to assist in any way they can. Meanwhile, superintendent Julie Janssen also arrived, bringing a contingent of top district officials to meet with the principal and plan a turnaround.
Without a change, "the long-term effect of this is going to devastate this campus," Janssen said. But she said there was still time to restore parents' confidence.
"I will do whatever it takes (even) if it takes meeting one-on-one with these families," she said.
For the former PTSA president, it's too late.
Melissa Stanton, who transferred her son to Meadowlawn in November, said she thought the school really was trying to make changes for the better.
But she didn't think it was right for her son to watch yet another fight with girls ripping out hair extensions, or take more verbal abuse in the lunchroom.
"There are some things I don't wait on," said Stanton. "It's like putting your child with a reformed child abuser. Do you give it a chance? Or do you say, 'This is something I don't want to do.' ''
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.