DUNEDIN — Pinellas County sheriff's deputies say a fivefold increase in arrests at Dunedin Highland Middle School over the past five years is just that — in the past.
Officials said a surge in arrests between January and May last school year came after the Sheriff's Office was told by school crossing guards about altercations between students walking home. In response, patrol deputies and community policing officers were dispatched to monitor activity, causing arrests to jump.
Arrests this year are down 70 percent, along with decreases in referrals and suspensions, deputies and school officials told community members and city officials who attended a roundtable on school crime Thursday at the Dunedin Community Center. Multiple academic, recreational and mentoring programs are in place to help prevent a relapse.
"The safety and security of the campuses are not in question here," said Pinellas County sheriff's Lt. Keith Somers.
Dunedin's Public Safety Committee called Thursday's meeting to sort out recent public statements by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that the number of deputies assigned to Pinellas schools had dropped sharply because of budget cuts, while arrests in high schools and especially middle schools had 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.
Referencing a statement by Gualtieri that school resource officers felt they were "stretched too thin," committee members and Dunedin Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski asked if there was a need for the city to contribute volunteers, funding or other resources.
However, deputies said staffing isn't a problem at Dunedin Highland, which has always had one school resource officer.
Instead, officials attributed the spike in arrests to neighborhood rivalries spawned by the 2009 rezoning of students from Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater.
Police figures show Dunedin Highland arrests jumped from 11 during the 2007-08 school year to 58 last year.
Principal Chris Bates said the numbers appeared inflated. Deputies acknowledged the numbers include repeat offenders and the arrests of students on school grounds for offenses that occurred off campus.
Deputies stressed that their primary goal is to prevent arrests by forming relationships and by allowing the school to discipline students first. But last year, Somers said, deputies made arrests in cases where school sanctions failed.
School resource officer Chris Lostraglio said the "small percentage" of students who bumped up the arrest figures have since gone to high school, and after-school fights are "pretty much nonexistent."
Clearwater, Dunedin, the Sheriff's Office and other organizations already provide after-school mentoring, tutoring and recreation programs aimed at keeping students off the streets. And Bates said new programs are in the works, including a reading boot camp, an informational group for grandmothers who are increasingly acting as guardians, and a neighborhood watch that will monitor kids walking home along Highland Avenue and at three bus stops.
Deputies also believe restoration of the community policing officer to monitor the unincorporated areas from Sunset Point Road to the Union Street border between Clearwater and Dunedin will help reduce crime.
"Rest assured ... as you guys are just starting to think about it, we're already out there pounding the ground," sheriff's Capt. Bill Hagans said. "We live in a very safe area and we want to continue that."
Public Safety Committee members and several of the half-dozen parents in attendance said they wanted to see a more detailed report distinguishing which arrests were for incidents that occurred on campus during school hours.
But overall, committee members said they came away from Thursday's meeting satisfied that the problem is under control.
"The stats this year are down. We're not going to worry about last year," Bates said. "It's Caen Laida, Gaelic for 'moving forward.' We're concentrating on having a great year."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.