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Citrus ranks 18th in school violence, discipline reports

Last year, principals in Florida public schools recorded more than 74,000 fights among students.

Almost 28,000 students got caught with tobacco, alcohol or other drugs.

And school officials noted 2,442 cases of what they called sexual harassment.

Those snapshots of student behavior are captured in a report on school safety released Thursday by the Department of Education. The report tallied 21 types of violence or disciplinary problems on campuses, from alcohol possession and trespassing to robbery and arson. The highest number of incidents recorded statewide _ 97,873 _ fell into the category of disorderly conduct.

Tampa Bay area schools had their fair share of each, and then some.

According to the report, Hillsborough _ the state's third-largest school district _ was also third in the number of criminal incidents among 67 districts. Citrus County, with only 14,000 students, ranked 18th in the state.

Pinellas County, the seventh-largest district, reported only 1,629 incidents, earning a relatively low state ranking of 28th. Pasco and Hernando finished 47th and 62nd, respectively.

There are 2.3-million students in 3,000 public schools in Florida. State officials have been collecting information about school discipline and safety since 1992, but schools only began using specific definitions for violent acts and reporting directly to the state this year, said Laurie Cain, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

That means the report's numbers cannot show whether violence in Florida schools is getting worse or better. This year's report, based on figures from the 1995-96 school year, will be used as a baseline for future comparisons, Cain said.

Even where the numbers look good, school officials cautioned against reading too much into the report. "They're working on getting a process that's really valid, and you don't do that in one year," said Nancy Zambito, director of operations for Pinellas schools.

Zambito said the relatively low Pinellas numbers _ including 492 batteries and 304 fights _ reflected the success of conflict mediation and anger management programs in the district.

In Hillsborough, a district spokesman attributed the high number of violent incidents _ 15,546 _ to the size and location of the district, plus diligence in reporting incidents. "We have no assurance that every other district is as diligent as we are in this regard," said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Hillsborough schools, adding that Tampa is "more of an urban center than St. Petersburg, and some of the types of problems detailed in that report are more typically problems in urban areas."

Citrus officials, too, cited strict reporting to the state as a key reason for outranking larger districts. "We also take things very seriously in Citrus County, and we document. If it's an incident, we report it," said David Cook, director of student support services for Citrus schools.