The Pinellas County School Board said Tuesday the district can no longer tolerate small but potent numbers of chronically disruptive students — and must find a way to boot them from traditional schools, pronto.
"So much time is taken up with dealing with hoodlums," board chairwoman Janet Clark told superintendent Julie Janssen at a workshop. "Send the message … that we're finally not going to put up with it anymore. And when that message is sent a few times, it gets through heads."
Board members directed Janssen to report on options at their next workshop March 16. And several said they want to see changes this school year, not next fall.
Among the ideas: expanding capacity at Pinellas Secondary School, an alternative school in Pinellas Park that currently serves 250 to 300 middle and high school students with discipline problems. Or, creating more seats for those students by setting up portables on some campuses.
"We have to do something now," said board member Linda Lerner. "We just have to do it."
The tough talk came after a St. Petersburg Times story detailed the chaotic atmosphere at John Hopkins Middle School on 16th Street S in St. Petersburg. Between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, police arrested 60 students — more than twice as many as any other St. Petersburg middle school. Many of the arrests were for fighting or flagrantly disrupting class.
The story generated more than 230 comments on tampabay.com, and at least 10 letters to the Times from Hopkins students.
"I'm so lucky that I'm in my last year of John Hopkins," wrote Samuel DeLonay. "I'm so tired of this school and its crime."
It wasn't clear Tuesday how easy it will be for the School Board to get what it wants.
The number of open seats at Pinellas Secondary fluctuates throughout the year as students transfer in and out. But it tends to operate near capacity, said Ward Kennedy, the district director of school operations. Some of the students there are persistent troublemakers, but most are there for more egregious offenses such as battery, threats and intimidation.
The district told principals about a week ago that Pinellas Secondary could take more chronically disruptive students. But it would not be able to handle the load if all principals began regularly referring such students.
It's also not clear — even if there is room elsewhere — how quickly schools can move those students out. The transfer process requires that parents be notified, and that interventions be tried and evaluated. It's more stringent for special education students, who some say make up a sizable percentage of those routinely getting into trouble.
For general education students, "we can find out pretty quick if a child is responding to the interventions," said associate superintendent Barbara Thornton.
In some cases, that might take a week; in others, a month or more. There is no set time frame for the transfer process, Thornton said, because it differs for every student, depending on the nature and frequency of the problem behavior and how he or she responds to help.
The district reassigned about 280 students from all schools during first semester. But officials could not say late Tuesday how many students have been transferred from Hopkins.
Board members didn't dwell on details Tuesday. And they were in no mood for long-term solutions.
At one point, Janssen said the district needs to marshal its resources to change problem behavior. "It's a great big picture we have to look at," she said.
Board member Nina Hayden quickly followed: "We have to decide if we're going to have direct action, and quickly," she said. "At some point, you need order. … That doesn't mean you abandon the holistic approach."
Hayden also confronted a perception among some that black parents at Hopkins are tolerating bad behavior. As the district has returned to neighborhood schools, the percentage of black students at Hopkins has climbed from 43 to 56 percent.
"I have heard from many African-American parents who take issue with students disrupting their school," she said. "They want their kids to learn."
Parents aren't the only ones paying close attention to Hopkins.
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said the juvenile justice system can't solve the main problem: removing the small, hard-core group of misbehaving kids.
"I don't have the resources to deal with them," he said.
The courts may be limited, too.
Kids often have to compile a long juvenile arrest record before they get sent away from their school to a residential treatment program, said Joe Walker, juvenile division director for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
Walker said his office has spent two weeks working with police to help curb the violence at John Hopkins.
Lori Matway, the city of St. Petersburg's liaison with the school district, said Hopkins will likely be topic No. 1 at Mayor Bill Foster's monthly meeting with the superintendent on March 17.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.