The Pinellas County School District has allowed John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg to descend into a state of near-chaos. The School Board, particularly, but also parents, law enforcement and the community, must vigorously attack the problems at John Hopkins immediately. The solutions they craft may soon be needed at other schools that are seeing similar problems surface in the wake of the district's return to neighborhood zoning.
St. Petersburg Times staff writers Ron Matus and Jamal Thalji reported Tuesday that 60 John Hopkins students were arrested between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31 on charges ranging from disorderly conduct and simple battery to grand theft and strong-arm robbery. Twenty-two were arrested in January alone.
But it took an incident Friday to bring the school's deteriorating environment to the public's and apparently the School Board's attention. One teacher declared, "We have no control of this school." The incident started with eight boys squaring off in the school courtyard and two throwing punches, but when one ran off, a surging crowd of students followed. Staff struggled to restore order.
Frequent fighting is only one problem. There are frequent assaults on teachers and routine disruption of classes. Problem students have no fear of punishment.
Pity the students who want to get a good education. For them, going to John Hopkins lately is less a learning experience than it is an exercise in survival.
The situation is all the more disappointing because John Hopkins is designed to serve the middle years for the district's arts-magnet program that starts at Perkins Elementary School and continues on to the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. But the John Hopkins magnet is a weakening link, because some parents who demand a safe learning environment are removing their children.
With the return to neighborhood schools, John Hopkins, where seven out of 10 children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and certain other Pinellas schools are seeing more discipline problems. The school district did not adequately prepare for the changes. While a few extra resources were directed to John Hopkins as the situation grew more dire — a second police resource officer, two adult campus monitors and four assistant principals instead of the typical two — it has not been enough. Frequent principal turnover at the school in recent years hasn't helped either.
The district must streamline and toughen its bureaucratic, weak-kneed approach to removing disruptive students from schools. John Hopkins is proof of the chaos that can result when misbehaving students who don't fear punishment are allowed to remain in the regular school setting.
The School Board and superintendent Julie Janssen have a lot of work to do at John Hopkins and the other schools already facing similar issues due to greater numbers of disruptive students. The district needs to do whatever is required — and summon help from parents and the community — to get ahead of this disturbing trend.