ST. PETERSBURG — Teachers explain math and science and mentor students, but on Tuesday at Gibbs High School, the best use of one teacher's time was as a human barricade. She stood between two female students until several minutes of screaming and circling turned physical, the girls punching and kicking and hair-pulling as they fell to the floor of their classroom.
Recorded by a male student who laughed and egged on the girls, then posted the video online, the fight has stunned some in the community. One School Board member expressed concerns about the impact on Gibbs, which has struggled over the years with poor performance and a rough reputation.
"I am extremely hurt because we have really been making strides and Gibbs itself has been making strides," board member Rene Flowers said. "Now you have this situation that sets it back."
The video shows a circle of students but only one intervening adult. Several noisy minutes pass with no one coming to help the teacher keep control. Forced to deal with rising tensions, she appears to abandon any effort to continue classwork.
The teacher requested help, said Pinellas County Schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra. But Parra did not know at what point that happened. A campus monitor, two administrators and another teacher responded, Parra said. She said she did not know how much time passed between the request for help and their arrival.
St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said no police officer was called to the scene.
"The (school resource officer) wasn't aware of this until well after it was over," he said. "It is our understanding that the school is handling it internally."
Parra declined to identify the subject of the class or the grade, saying the information could identify students.
"When there is a fight that happens, a staff member's response is to intervene as safely as possible and call for assistance," she said. "Each situation is going to be different, and a staff member's going to have to assess the situation and determine what could be done to stop it. Sometimes that might mean physically getting involved. Sometimes that might mean verbal de-escalation."
Both students involved in the fight and the student who recorded it are facing punishment, Parra said. While she could not detail what the consequences were, Pinellas's policy allows for suspension, school reassignment and expulsion.
The student who recorded the original video took it down, but it was still circulating on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon.
Flowers, who represents the area where Gibbs is located, said she was dismayed by the disrespect the students showed their teacher. In the video, teenagers laugh and curse as the woman straightens tables, then stands between the two students.
Flowers said it was clear the teacher could not have left the classroom and the students unattended. "Maybe we need to put panic buttons in the classrooms," she said.
Parra said there are phones in all classrooms.
Last year, Gibbs issued 76 out-of-school suspensions for fighting, the most of any Pinellas high school and more than double the number of several schools. Gibbs also had the highest rate of suspensions, with 20.5 percent of Gibbs students kicked out for at least a day last year.
Across the district, the number of out-of-school suspensions for fighting increased from 551 to 631 last school year.
Parra said fights had decreased at Gibbs this year, but did not have the numbers on hand. The number of school arrests had dropped, she said, from 23 this time last year to 13.
"What's important to know is this (fight) is an isolated event at Gibbs High School and this doesn't represent the excellent work happening," Parra said, adding that Gibbs' school grade improved from a C to a B. "It's unfortunate that people may see this and think not."
Lisa Wheeler-Brown, president of the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association and the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said her mouth was wide open as she watched the video, sent from a friend on Tuesday.
"Number one, I don't see how this could go on in a classroom — the students could just blatantly disrespect the teacher and the other students who want to learn," Wheeler-Brown said.
At the end of the video, a male student appears in front of the camera. "Only at Gibbs, man," he laughs. "Only at Gibbs."
County Commissioner Ken Welch, whose daughter graduated from Gibbs three years ago, said he was not surprised by the footage after hearing stories from his daughter.
"It's a sad reality that in too many of our classrooms, teachers spend just as much time trying to keep control as they do teaching," Welch said.
He said parents flock to fundamental schools because teachers have control of their classrooms. "I think that video is really shedding light on a real problem in many of our schools," Welch said. "It's not just Gibbs."
Wheeler-Brown said she believes fights like the one captured on video keep the best teachers from working in the schools that need them the most.
"I'm not sure if the teacher called for help (early on) or not. But if she did, it should not take four minutes and 32 seconds to get help in the classroom," she said. "I felt sorry for the teacher. She had no control. No help. No nothing."
Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Lisa Gartner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.