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Arrests often go nowhere at John Hopkins Middle School

ST. PETERSBURG — A 15-year-old boy shoves a teacher into a doorjamb. A boy punches a 12-year-old girl because she said she didn't like him. A 14-year-old girl slaps and curses at a younger classmate.

All three incidents took place at John Hopkins Middle School in recent months. Each resulted in an arrest.

And in each case, the criminal charge ultimately was dropped.

The cases are a small fraction of the 84 arrests made on campus from September to February as officers and school staffers try to restore order to the chaotic campus.

But they're indicative of a larger trend: Many such cases are dropped by prosecutors, St. Petersburg police say.

The reasons vary: uncooperative victims, weak cases or the school already punished the student. Even when a student is prosecuted, judges have limited powers to remove that kid from a particular school to prevent future trouble.

The juvenile system, it seems, can't fix what ails John Hopkins.

"Does every bump in the hallway, every word that starts flying, does it belong down here in the juvenile justice system?" said Joe Walker, juvenile division director for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, "or is this something that can be handled by the family, by the school system? That's the question."

• • •

The State Attorney's Office won't comment on specific criminal cases connected to disciplinary problems at John Hopkins Middle School. Nor are juvenile court records of those cases public record.

But some police reports detailing the constant misconduct at John Hopkins also detail whether the charges were prosecuted.

A review of 10 incidents at John Hopkins show that in nine of the cases, criminal charges were dropped against students.

• In five cases, school discipline was deemed sufficient. For example, the family of the girl punched by the boy agreed to drop the case because he was disciplined and sent to another school.

• In two cases of battery on a School Board employee, the charges were dropped because the victims, both teachers, didn't cooperate with prosecutors. Those teachers could not be reached for comment. The students were disciplined in both cases, however.

• In a case of two brawling 12-year-old girls, the charges were dropped because successful prosecution was "unlikely."

• In another case, the parents of a 13-year-old boy punched by a 14-year-old declined to prosecute.

The case that was prosecuted involved four boys arrested on disorderly conduct charges after a campus melee.

"Every case, every one of them is different," Walker said, "and they all have unique facts about them, and it's our job to evaluate them to see if they can get to the level of successful prosecution."

Walker said that school administrators have far more leeway to discipline and rein in students than the criminal justice system. "There's a lot of remedies available to a principal," he said.

Prosecutors, he said, have a higher burden of proof in juvenile court than arresting officers. And in recent years appellate courts have increased the prosecution's burden of proof.

State law also makes some allowance for removing students from schools where they're accused of committing a felony. A juvenile judge can order a move if the victim requests it. But often the offending student ends up back at the same school, though some come back with a judge's order to have "no contact" with the victim.

The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to treat and rehabilitate first and punish them later — much later. Remedies like probation and counseling are considered first. Only the most hard-core offenders end up being taken off the streets.

"We don't want to remove someone from the community with a disorderly conduct charge without much of a record," Walker said. "We want to get them on the right track."

• • •

Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen told 50 parents and teachers at John Hopkins on Thursday night that she plans to talk to St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon about the situation at their school.

Janssen raised a question that more and more people are asking: Is arresting a student for unruly behavior really the most appropriate way to handle the situation?

"The last thing we want is for our students to be arrested for things that are meaningless," she said. "What that has done is, they're taken out one day and brought back the next day. It's kind of a badge of honor, because there are no consequences.

"But not only that, it now puts another barrier for that child to ever to be successful. Because it hangs over their heads. So philosophically, that's not really the answer.

"I think if the kids are really incorrigible and just really deserve for a criminal act to be arrested, absolutely. But we've got to work out that fine line."

After the meeting, Janssen said it appears that in some cases, police are handling cases that would be more appropriately handled by school administration. But the superintendant stressed that she needs more information before coming to any conclusions.

She is set to meet with Harmon on Tuesday.

• • •

So when does a fight at school merit discipline, and when does it merit an arrest? Walker, the juvenile prosecutor, said it's up to the officer. But he can envision how a fight could escalate to the point where children need to be handcuffed.

The worst brawls at John Hopkins, according to police reports, have taken place in front of hundreds of students, and continued even after officers order the combatants to stop. Oftentimes, according to the reports, officers have to physically pull the students apart or use pepper spray to get them to stop fighting.

"When the police say we're here, stop, and they pull them apart and they keep hitting the officers to get at each other," Walker said, "the officer is charged by law with the discretion to make an arrest."

But if the arrests aren't resulting in prosecutions, Harmon said, then it appears that arresting the student is a temporary solution to restoring order to the school.

"They're solving the problem for that particular day," Harmon said. "But without some administrative action, suspending or expelling the kids, most likely that kid is back in school understanding that nothing happened to them."

• • •

Harmon blames John Hopkins' disciplinary woes on a handful of children who need to be removed from the school. He said the school district is starting to do just that.

He agrees with the superintendent that some incidents are better handled by administrators than his officers.

The chief has a theory, though, why the number of arrests can suddenly shoot up at a particular school. John Hopkins has more than twice the arrests of any other middle school in the city.

"What I typically experience, and I'm not going to pick on John Hopkins, is that when the teachers and administrators get frustrated," Harmon said, "they push us out front to solve the problem because they don't have the resources to deal with these issues or the students, and that's not just at John Hopkins."

Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report.

Arrests often go nowhere at John Hopkins Middle School 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 9:49pm]

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