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Pinellas school superintendent promises swift changes at Hopkins Middle

The Pinellas County school district is moving swiftly but prudently to transfer chronically disruptive students into alternative schools and make leadership changes at John Hopkins Middle School, superintendent Julie Janssen told the School Board on Tuesday.

"I want you to know … that I've heard you loudly and clearly," she said, reading from a written statement.

Janssen's remarks came after a series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times about rampant discipline problems at Hopkins — and a board directive to find a way, immediately, to expedite the transfer process for problem students at all schools.

The south St. Petersburg school has been rocked by unruly behavior, with the latest police data, released Tuesday at the Times' request, showing 22 more arrests in February.

Most board members told Janssen she was headed in the right direction with the appropriate urgency. "You're traveling at light speed," said board chairwoman Janet Clark.

But board member Linda Lerner, who expressed concerns before the meeting that the district wasn't moving fast enough , told Janssen she still wanted more data and details.

"When there are 200 arrests in middle schools, somebody needs to be looking at that," she said.

According to Janssen:

• Some students have been assigned to other schools and more reassignments are on the way. An e-mail she sent Sunday to board members said three students were transferred out of Hopkins on Friday.

• Hopkins is getting two additional behavior specialists. And Community Tampa Bay, a not-for-profit group that says it promotes cross-cultural respect through education and mediation, will facilitate workshops at the school for staff and students.

• Among the personnel changes in the works: Barry Brown, an assistant principal at St. Petersburg High, will trade places with Hopkins assistant principal Carolyn Altenore for the remainder of the year.

In the longer term, Janssen noted the district is working on a legal memorandum with plaintiffs in the district's long-running desegregation case that deals specifically with the behavior of black students. Hopkins is a majority-black school.

She cautioned the board that some changes won't happen overnight.

"I urge you to keep in mind that we must be sure that the necessary services are available at the receiving schools for each student we move," she said. "This means the process may not move as swiftly as you or I would like, but we must be prudent rather than simply reactionary."

February's police data for Hopkins brings the total arrests this year to 84, far more than any other school. The latest reports include three charges of battery on a law enforcement officer.

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon blamed most of the school's problems on a handful of kids. But he said neither his agency nor the juvenile justice system can do what the school system can: remove those kids from the school.

"My solution would be that we need to take those troubled kids out of the classrooms so teachers can teach," the chief said. "Now what we do with those kids? I don't have the resources to deal with them. The schools may not have the resources to deal with them. But somehow we need to deal with the issue of the kids most problematic to our schools."

In a related development Tuesday, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement — better known as the Uhurus — announced plans to rally at Hopkins today, saying the district "has declared war on African children." It also called for Clark to resign for using the term "hoodlums" last week in describing a small number of problem students.

Board members Mary Brown and Lerner also criticized Clark for using the term.

"They might be many things, but they are not hoodlums," Brown said. "If you cannot be careful in what you say, then you do not need to be chair."

Clark said she would not apologize. "We can't continue to make excuses" when kids are disruptive, she said.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas school superintendent promises swift changes at Hopkins Middle 03/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 12:19am]
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