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Student arrests rise at another Pinellas middle school

Less than a year after one Pinellas County middle school was swamped by a wave of brawls and arrests, another is drawing unflattering comparisons.

Police have made 50 arrests at Pinellas Park Middle School so far this year, up from 14 for all of last year. Some parents say a rise in fights, cuss-filled tirades and other bad behavior has made the school this year's version of John Hopkins Middle, the St. Petersburg school that generated weeks of unwanted attention.

"For four months (at Pinellas Park Middle), he didn't learn anything in class," said Lisa Millard, 32, who got her sixth-grader transferred out of that class because students were so disruptive. "Kids talking back, doing whatever they wanted to do. They would spray stuff (cologne and perfume) and the teacher had asthma attacks."

School Board member Linda Lerner said the issues show that despite what happened at Hopkins, the district still doesn't have a good strategy to deal with persistently misbehaving students.

The board "gave clear direction that we want to have this alternative for chronically disruptive students," she said. "It didn't happen."

The 50 arrests are more than any other Pinellas middle or high school this year, and far more than the middle school in second, Dunedin Highland, with 18. Through the same period last year, Hopkins had 60 arrests.

The district's response: Things are getting better.

According to spokeswoman Andrea Zahn, 38 arrests happened by Nov. 10, and have tapered off since. The school started a 10-week program for problem students last week — which includes "civility training."

The school also has a new police officer and several new administrators. "To be honest with you, there's a learning curve," Zahn said.

Details about the arrests were not immediately available from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. But district data shows the lion's share of 446 out-of-school suspensions this year (also tops among middle and high schools) are for defiance and insubordination (183), followed by fights (56) and profanity (49).

Pinellas Park Middle principal Robyn Witcher did not return a call for comment. But in an e-mail sent this month to new Hopkins principal Barry Brown, who appears to be leading a turnaround at that school, Witcher asks him to visit and offer advice.

Pinellas Park Middle "has been experiencing some issues with neighborhood drama and chronically disruptive students that are similar to what John Hopkins went through last year," Witcher wrote. "We have implemented various strategies and interventions that have been successful in making some improvements. However, second semester can be a challenge in the best of situations and we would like to be preventative, rather than responsive."

Last year, 74 percent of the students at Pinellas Park Middle were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Only Azalea and Tyrone middle schools in St. Petersburg have higher rates.

Parents said there are more fights this year, more cutting class, more lingering in the halls.

Lee Lovern said she resigned as president of the school's PTA in September, after her daughter was "jumped" by two other girls and, in her view, the principal did not pursue the matter aggressively enough.

"It's crazy there," she said. "It just seems like this year, it's the in-thing for girls to do, to bully."

Millard, the mother of the sixth-grader, said she was waiting in the front office one day when teachers announced over the intercom that they needed the school resource officer, pronto. Turned out, it was her kid's class.

"You could hear the kids screaming" over the intercom, she said. "It was ridiculous."

But another parent, Tasha Wallace, said she didn't think the incidents at Pinellas Park were unusual for a middle school. One of her kids was at Hopkins last year, and to keep him from going back, the family moved.

Compared to Hopkins back then, she said, Pinellas Park Middle is "like pre-school, with candy canes and hot chocolate."

Both Lovern, the former PTA president, and Chris Shafer, who chaired the school advisory council last year, were critical of the principal. Both complimented a no-nonsense assistant principal who was transferred to another middle school last summer.

"I'm not looking to hang this on any one person, but problems this big usually start at the top and trickle down," said Shafer, who visits the school weekly, even though his daughter has moved on to high school.

Lerner said she was confident in the school's leadership. She said the problem was not enough help and resources.

The new intervention program includes social skills classes and mandatory parent workshops.

One teacher raised "parental accountability" in an e-mail this month to a teachers' union representative. It was obtained through a records request.

"Instead of cooperation and insight," Maria D'Oleo wrote, "we get parents who verbalize that they are 'tired' of teachers calling their homes, parents who hang up on you, parents who blame teachers . . . and parents who call you back to say 'don't ever call my house again.' "

"No wonder the truant students who walk our halls feel empowered by their parents to do what they are doing."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Student arrests rise at another Pinellas middle school 02/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 7:29am]
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