DUNEDIN — A city advisory group is hosting a community meeting Thursday to figure out why so many Dunedin Highland Middle School students are ending up in handcuffs and how the community can address it.
Citizen volunteers on Dunedin's Public Safety Committee called the forum in response to public comments by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that the number of deputies assigned to Pinellas schools has dropped sharply during the last five years because of budget cuts, while arrests in high schools and especially middle schools have spiked.
Dunedin Highland Middle School, Gualtieri told Pinellas School Board members during an Oct. 9 workshop, saw the highest increase in arrests of any county middle school at which the Sheriff's Office provides school resource officers.
"We were all kind of surprised," Dunedin Public Safety Committee chairman Michael Quill said. "We want to understand that and to come together as a community to try to troubleshoot this and come up with some solutions."
However, in an interview Tuesday, Gualtieri said he doesn't attribute the increase in arrests at Dunedin Highland to a lack of school resource officers. The school has always had one resource officer.
Instead, he and school officials attribute the jump to student tensions over the rezoning of Clearwater students to Dunedin Highland, as well as to general law enforcement problems in the surrounding south Dunedin-north Clearwater area.
"I think some of the crime we're seeing in that area is spilling over into that middle school," Gualtieri said.
Michael Bessette, the Pinellas school district's associate superintendent for operational services and a former middle school principal, said Gualtieri's analysis makes sense.
"Schools are no more than a microcosm of the community from where they come," Bessette said. "If the community is having problems, they don't stop at the school doors."
According to Gualtieri, arrests at the four middle schools the Sheriff's Office serves with school resource officers — Dunedin Highland, Osceola, Pinellas Park and Seminole — increased from 58 during the 2007-08 school year to 137 last year.
The biggest increase during that time frame was at Dunedin Highland, where arrests jumped from 11 to 58.
Dunedin Highland Principal Chris Bates said disciplinary problems began increasing about three years ago when Clearwater's Kennedy Middle School was changed to a fundamental middle school and other Kennedy students were split between Oak Grove and Dunedin Highland middle schools.
Soon, tiffs began brewing about things like who grew up on which street — a phenomenon Bates said he's seen before when working at a rezoned Pasco school. He said roughly 30 percent of Dunedin Highland's 1,100 students are from Clearwater.
It's taken three years, he said, "to bring them all together into the Highlander family. Some people think it's better this year because all of those kids have gone on to high school. All the kids who are here now all started here as Highlanders. They didn't all start at different schools and have to come together."
District figures show the majority of last year's arrests were for disruption of school. That was followed by arrests for disorderly conduct, violations of probation, marijuana and battery.
Arrests so far this year are down by 70 percent, Bates said. He said in-school suspensions are also down by 25 percent, referrals are down by 6 percent and out-of-school suspensions are down 34 percent.
Bates praised Clearwater, Dunedin, the Sheriff's Office and outside organizations for partnering with the school on after-hours tutoring and recreational programs aimed at keeping kids off the streets.
About 56 percent of Dunedin Highland students receive free or reduced price lunch — often an indicator of poverty.
"There's a high level of low-income students in this school that may need additional assistance and outlets," Dunedin City Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said, "and we're going to look into trying to find ways of providing it if we can."
She hopes Thursday's meeting can generate data officials can take to a larger town hall meeting on south Dunedin residents' concerns. The town hall meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Hale Activity Center, will provide a forum for citizens to sound off on crime, code enforcement, recreation, Dunedin Middle School concerns, infrastructure, drainage and other concerns.
Bujalski has met recently with Gualtieri, Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne and other Clearwater staffers to discuss the need to work together to squelch crime along the two cities' Union Street border. Gualtieri said his agency hopes to cut crime by restoring a community policing officer who had been cut.
Clearwater representatives are expected to attend the Nov. 13 southside town hall to hear residents' concerns firsthand and determine if and how Clearwater can work with Dunedin.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or email@example.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.