ST. PETERSBURG — Two feuding girls started throwing punches after lunch Tuesday at Azalea Middle School.
A crowd gathered to watch. At least four other brawls broke out. A school resource officer radioed for help. Ten city officers scrambled to the campus to break up the fights.
Ten minutes later, 11 students — most of them girls — were under arrest on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to battery on a police officer. Two girls were pepper-sprayed after they wouldn't stop fighting.
"Everybody was counting the fights," said sixth-grader Jeremiah Jones, 11, who was on his way to class when the brawls started. He said it was hard to ignore the chaos. "Everybody was running."
Principal Connie Kolosey said the incident was the worst at Azalea this school year. She said the school has taken several steps recently to address school violence, but arrest data suggest the school has a way to go.
Police made 30 arrests at Azalea from August to December 2011, the most of any other middle school in the city, and more than all but one local high school.
Two years ago, it was another St. Petersburg middle school — John Hopkins — that made headlines after a series of brawls revealed serious discipline problems. Police made 60 arrests at Hopkins — the most of any other middle school in St. Petersburg — in a five-month span during the 2009-10 school year.
Azalea, with 24 arrests during that time, had the second most.
Hours after the fights at Azalea were ended Tuesday, Kolosey sat in her office, shaking her head. "It's devastating," she said. "This kind of nonsense takes away from what we're trying to do here."
For the last year, Kolosey said, Azalea has been trying to change the way students and staff deal with the confrontations that inevitably arise in middle school. A violence prevention specialist has been brought in to help. And just last month, students who stayed out of fights were rewarded with a special dance.
"Historically, Azalea has struggled," Kolosey said. "It's episodic. It'll be quiet for a while and then we'll have a flareup."
Kolosey said there doesn't seem to be one reason why Azalea has consistently hovered at the top when it comes to arrests at middle schools. She did say, however, that many of the students there face myriad socioeconomic problems. She said about 85 percent of Azalea students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, the highest in the district for middle schools.
Later that afternoon, a half-dozen police cruisers lingered in the school's parking lot as students waited around for their buses and rides.
In addition to the 11 students arrested Tuesday, another student fled the campus during the chaos. Police had not reported finding that student, who will face a charge of battering a police officer, by Tuesday night.
Police said they considered pursuing a charge of battery on a school employee against at least one student, but decided not to after the teacher declined to prosecute.
No students suffered injuries that required a trip to the hospital. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the students involved because of their ages.
Kolosey said a message about the incident went out to parents Tuesday afternoon. Extra officers are expected at the school today and maybe for the rest of the week, she said. Kolosey said she hopes the brawls don't cast a permanent shadow over the school. "We have over a thousand students who had nothing to do with this," she said.
"That's the tragedy here."