ST. PETERSBURG — David Kirby said that back in January, a handful of students at Azalea Middle School hatched a plan to hurt their peers. They put tacks between their fingers and smacked their classmates. They dragged the tacks to draw blood.
"It just shocks me," said Kirby, a geotechnical engineer whose son attends the school.
But it doesn't shock him that Azalea Middle has the second-highest suspension rate of any middle school in Pinellas, according to a draft district report obtained this week by the St. Petersburg Times. Through Jan. 21, nearly one in every seven students at the school earned an out-of-school suspension.
"Almost every day we hear of fights, brawls, etc. that are never shared with parents from administration," Kirby said.
The news looks better districtwide. Overall, the report shows, the number of first-semester suspensions fell sharply between last year and this year. During the first semester last year, there were 9,352 suspensions. This year, there were 7,732. That's a 17 percent decrease, and the fewest number of first-semester suspensions in five years.
The biggest drops came in high schools, where the percentage of students earning suspensions dipped from 9.4 to 8 percent.
But on the downside, there are some schools where rates rose (like John Hopkins Middle, which went from 11.1 to 16.1 percent), or remained far higher than parents would like (like Azalea Middle, which fell from 16.9 to 14.6 percent).
"I would not be honest with you if I said everything was hunky-dory," said Azalea Middle principal Teresa Anderson. "All the ZIP codes we pull from are high-crime areas in the city of St. Pete," she said, and the issues there don't stop at the schoolhouse door.
The district issues this report every year after the first semester. A similar report will come out in the summer showing suspensions for the full school year.
Neither report usually gets much attention. But in light of recent publicity about unruly conditions at Hopkins, they may give parents clues — but not the full picture — about the atmosphere in other Pinellas schools.
"It is an indicator. It absolutely needs to be looked at," said School Board member Linda Lerner. "But there's a lot besides the actual number that we need to understand."
The numbers can fluctuate a lot from year to year. They don't show whether there are new principals or new approaches to changing student behavior. They don't indicate whether the school is undergoing demographic changes that may create a more challenging climate.
At Dunedin Highland Middle, the first-semester rate climbed from 8.6 to 10.1 percent. But shifting attendance zones, prompted by last year's closing of Kennedy Middle, for example, upped the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch from 41 to 65 percent, said principal Brenda Poff.
"We had to rebuild the culture of the school," said Poff, who came to Dunedin Highland this year after 17 years as principal at Madeira Beach Middle.
The school added a slew of programs this year, including Hispanic outreach and early intervention for at-risk kids. And Poff's more nuanced, internal numbers show suspensions dropping markedly in the first two months of 2010 (80) vs. the first two months of 2009 (127). "It's starting to work," she said.
While suspension numbers can be red flags, they can be smoke screens, too.
Some schools that look good on paper may have principals who are sending students back to class for persistent minor infractions, frustrating teachers and other students. Others may have high suspension rates because principals are aggressively rooting out troublemakers — and actually improving the school climate.
At Pinellas Park Middle, suspension rates rose from 12.3 to 14 percent. But principal Robyn Witcher said she targeted disrespect and defiance this year, and in the short term, that has led to more disciplinary actions. "Are we making some inroads?" she said. "If you just look at the data, and not at why or the processes in place, then you might say no."
At least two high schools — Seminole and Gibbs — adopted in-school suspension programs this year called "alternative bell schedules." Instead of sending disruptive kids home, they make them come to class at different hours — from after lunch to early evening.
Seminole's suspension rate dropped from 11.7 to 4.4 percent; Gibbs' rate fell from 14 to 10.2 percent.
"We have a lot of kids complain about (alternative bell schedules)," Seminole principal Walter Weller said. But that's a good thing: "We don't have a lot of repeat offenders."
It remains to be seen whether new district-led efforts may impact suspension rates. But some are hopeful.
At Azalea Middle, the district is making good on promises to remove chronically disruptive students, with seven being transferred on Friday alone, said Anderson, the principal. Word has spread quickly to students.
"The kids are asking, 'Mrs. Anderson, am I on that list?' "
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.