ST. PETERSBURG — Students at F-rated Gibbs High School heard some stark new rules Thursday.
Droopy pants will be zip tied.
Turned-on cell phones will be confiscated.
And if the school police officer has to break up a fight, expect a stinging dose of pepper spray.
"We're trying to move from an F to a B," said new principal Kevin Gordon, a former Gibbs track star whom superintendent Julie Janssen tapped to lead the school. "Everybody needs to know the mission and what it takes to get there."
Gordon and other administrators outlined the changes at a couple of student assemblies, intent on changing the culture of a school whose struggles reached a new low this year.
Gibbs is the only F high school in the Tampa Bay area, dragged down by Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores that show barely a third of its freshmen and sophomores are reading at grade level. It's also plagued by discipline issues. According to district data, more students were suspended there last year — 22.6 percent — than at any other high school in Pinellas.
School districts everywhere have rules about spaghetti straps and cell phones and everything else. But in many cases, the rules are only as good as a principal's willingness to enforce them.
Gordon, soft-spoken and low-key, ordered hundreds of posters that spell out Gibbs' new "discipline plan." He bought thousands of zip ties. Three days into the school year, administrators have used about 50 on baggy-panted boys, including one that Gordon threaded himself before the first bell rang Thursday.
"I'm walking the walk," he said.
The tough tone at Gibbs is intended to restore order so teaching and learning can find a rhythm. It's also part of a broader strategy to turn things around, now, before a proud school with deep ties to the black community faces the prospect of state-ordered restructuring.
So, administrators are laying down the law.
Don't chew gum. Don't spit on the sidewalk. Leave the "hoochie" shorts at home.
Don't arrive late. Don't leave early without permission. And if a teacher orders you to leave a classroom, do it — or prepare to be handcuffed.
Gibbs officials are also telling students something that may be easier said than done: Leave your beefs on the streets and your dramas at home.
The crime rate around Gibbs is "extremely high" and the teen pregnancy rates are "shot to the roof," assistant principal Reuben Hepburn told the students. "But once you're in the classroom, we want you to focus on learning."
"I understand for many of you this is culture shock," he said. "But there's a reason we're doing things differently. We want to help you walk across the stage at graduation time."
So far, teachers like what they're hearing. And they say they can see a change.
"It's a dramatic difference," video production teacher Cassandra Cummings said as students streamed between classes. "Last year, it was rough. (Now) kids are getting to class on time."
Karen Kisten, a 10th-grade reading teacher, said administrators responded to a fight in her classroom this week within 20 seconds. The response time was a lot longer last year, she said. And sometimes there was no response at all.
"We're encouraged," Kisten said. "Last year, you would have been sworn at" if you told a student to pull his pants up. "This year, they say, 'Okay.' "
That doesn't mean students are thrilled.
Gibbs is holding a separate assembly for each grade. The freshmen in the first assembly listened politely. They repeated dutifully when administrators told them they were at Gibbs to get a good education and a diploma.
But many of the sophomores in the second assembly put their heads on their hands. Some closed their eyes.
When the gum ban was mentioned, bubbles popped all over the back rows.
"It's a whole lot different. It's bad," said sophomore Alissa Lingo. "We can't do anything. It feels like we're back in elementary school."
"They need to let us have fun," said James Wiggins, another sophomore.
But junior Rockie Thompson said the change is exactly what Gibbs needs.
"People can't play around in class (this year). If they play around, they get them out fast," she said. "Most kids think it's too strict, but the stricter it is, the better."
Teachers say students are getting the message. And they're changing even as they complain.
Kisten, the reading teacher, said when a student sipping bottled water in the hall saw her this week, he stopped and asked, "Is this allowed?"
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.