Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Student journalists explore difficult subject — youth violence — at John Hopkins Middle


Two young girls jab and hit one another, grabbing at each other's hair, swirling in an angry tango while others watch and yell.

This jarring adolescent brawl at John Hopkins Middle School could have made its way from YouTube onto any local television news report about school fighting or the lack of discipline of today's youth.

But in this case, it's the opening scene of a professional-quality seven-minute report by an unlikely group of journalists: Hopkins students themselves.

"John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, Florida, has had 18 arrests so far this year for fighting and teacher battery, according to Pinellas County school records," a narrator begins.

His name is De'Qonton Davis. He's 14. This project was his idea.

• • •

For years, Hopkins has battled a reputation as a rough place to work and go to school, despite its acclaimed arts magnet program. Stories of student violence captured headlines in 2010 after teachers complained that incidents were on the rise. In October, student arrest figures showed a worrisome trend: 11 student arrests in two months, seven of them within two weeks. The Tampa Bay Times wrote a story.

The student journalists of the JHop Times began brainstorming.

"They were talking about how gangs and fights and drugs start," De'Qonton remembers. "I said, 'It don't start like that. It starts from home. That leads into the streets, which leads into the school. By the time students fight, they don't know what they're fighting for.' "

De'Qonton's words sparked looks of instant recognition from his classmates, said journalism teacher Luanne Dietz: "They all knew there was something there."

So, with De'Qonton at the helm as producer, a team of 15 students started lining up interviews and collecting video.

It was time, they decided, to tell their own story.

• • •

De'Qonton is the kind of student for whom this magnet program was created 10 years ago. Called Journeys in Journalism (and partly sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times), its mission was to inspire students from high-poverty, high-minority schools to explore what it's like to report, write and produce the news stories happening around them.

When De'Qonton landed in the class in sixth grade, journalism teacher Jenny Butkus said, he didn't seem very engaged. Then, his instructors put a camera in his hands.

"He really lit up," Butkus said.

De'Qonton learned how to use photos to tell stories, how to let images unfold instead of trying to force them. By seventh grade, he was displaying such a strong interest and artistic potential that the teachers at Hopkins awarded him a donated Canon Rebel XT.

His mother, who works as a cook, watched her first-born son pursue his interest with quiet enthusiasm, bringing his camera to family events and warning relatives not to pose because he wanted to capture what was real.

"Journalism has brought out another side of him, a side I haven't seen," mother LaQonya Stewart, 33, said. "It makes him smile."

De'Qonton admits the camera has done more for him than allow him to make pictures.

"When I've got frustration," he said, "I just take my camera and go outside and start taking pictures and calm down. Then I go back in the house and I talk to my momma."

• • •

Alexus Barnhart, 14, who worked on the project with De'Qonton, said the team recognized from the outset how important it would be to get students on the record talking about why they fight.

"We wanted to get people to open up to tell us how it happens," Alexus said.

They found Ayzhiah Lawson.

"I've been in two fights this year, 2011," the seventh-grader says in the first interview of the film.

She's not involved in the YouTube fight pictured in the film, but she said she has a tendency to get angry fast.

Ayzhiah describes "rumor" and "drama" involving her and another student — someone other kids kept telling her wanted to fight her. "We were just arguing, arguing, arguing," she says on camera. "I just started tagging that girl."

The students turned their cameras and spotlights on principal Barry Brown, a leader who was brought to Hopkins in 2010 to try to bring student discipline under control. They talked to longtime Hopkins geography teacher Claire Lynch, who was grabbed and pulled by a student after she tried to break up a fight between two students in her class.

They interviewed Hopkins' magnet school coordinator, Michael Vasallo, who spoke about neighborhood disagreements mushrooming into on-campus fights. A school resource officer told the camera that middle-schoolers often don't understand how their actions today can impact their futures.

The student filmmakers captured images from the school's hallways and lunchroom showing children taunting one another with jabs and pushes as casually as if they were tying their shoes.

"In 2009-10, the National Center for Education Statistics reported double the amount of violent incidents in middle school than in high school," De'Qonton says in his voice-over as the camera focuses on a hallway tussle. "In that same year, John Hopkins had 100 arrests. Fights are a big thing that happen at every middle school."

Dietz said that as the young journalists were planning their report, they discussed how commonly kids videotaped them and posted them online. They'd been taught they needed to grab their viewers at the beginning. So they dug out a YouTube fight from their school, one that says it was filmed at the end of the 2010-11 school year.

The whole time De'Qonton's team was working on the story, they knew they were dealing with a touchy subject, teacher Dietz said: "They would say, 'Ms. Dietz are you sure we can do this? Have you talked to Brown? Have you talked to Vasallo?"

Dietz assured them the administration believed in their project.

Brown, who has a tendency to hold the professional media at arm's length, said he recognized the importance of what the students were doing. He has become accustomed to their businesslike interviews, their professional equipment, their hard questions. He helped them with data and sat for an interview, even if it was on a topic that haunts Hopkins. He trusted them to get all sides.

"I think so many times we get caught up in the adult perspective and don't get a chance to listen to how our kids see things," Brown said.

The kids kept going.

They took their camera beyond the campus to describe the mid-St. Petersburg neighborhood where 59 percent of the school's students live. It's a neighborhood, De'Qonton narrates, that has "a history of violence and crime."

It is the same neighborhood, the film points out, where a St. Petersburg police officer was shot and killed in 2011, leaving Hopkins students to attend another school for a day after police closed their campus while they searched for the officer's killer.

De'Qonton says now that when he heard the name of the person police arrested, he couldn't believe it.

Suspect Nicholas Lindsey was 16. He was a former Hopkins student. De'Qonton used to play neighborhood football with him.

"I do believe that schools are a microcosm of society," Brown, the principal, says in the film, "which means that if you put a school in the middle of a community, I can guarantee you the things that are going on in that community will carry over into the school."

• • •

Leah Clapman is managing editor of education at PBS NewsHour online.

When she saw what De'Qonton's team had done with its story on student fighting, she decided to give it centerpiece placement on the Student Reporting Labs website.

The lab works with journalism programs at 15 schools — only two of which are middle schools — including Hopkins and St. Petersburg's Lakewood High. Hopkins' project, she said, stood out. It had professional lighting, great sound, a compelling narrative from a distinct student perspective and told an important story, she said.

"It's a great example to the other schools of what they can aim for in terms of both production quality and subject matter — and all from a middle school, which we find very incredible," she said. "All the producers who work at the NewsHour are really impressed with it."

Kenny Irby, a pastor and a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute (which owns the Times), helped start a mentoring program last year for middle school boys in the wake of Officer David Crawford's death.

De'Qonton is one of the 30 students. "He was clearly a young man who had things he wanted to tell the world about," Irby said.

When Irby saw the Hopkins video two weeks ago, he was so impressed with it, he decided to use it in a meeting with some of the boys. He said it speaks to the power of what they can do as students to relay their experience. Irby said he hopes it helps adults re-evaluate how they respond to student fights.

"The story of frustration and the misdirection of energy and expression of anger as a way to resolve conflict is huge," Irby said. "I hope we will stop — the community at large will stop — denying that this is a pervasive issue, that these fights are taking place."

Brown, the principal, said he's proud of the work the team did, though the opening fight scene footage was tough on first screening. Student arrests are down this year, a fact the video didn't leave out.

"Our kids did this," Brown said he thought to himself. "It's their expression of what's happening on campus."

Brown decided to tell the kids how he felt. According to Dietz, he entered the classroom and addressed the students sternly.

"Who worked on this PBS project?" he demanded.

A few kids nervously raised their hands and quickly pulled them back down.

"You guys did a good job," he said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8707.

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