Fourteen-year-old Axios Kazouris isn't a bad kid. He just made some poor choices. A lot of them.
But by the end of the third semester of seventh-grade at Tarpon Middle School, he had managed to rack up about 65 referrals. Most for fighting, talking back to teachers and using profanity.
"His behavior had become aggressive. He was defiant and rebellious. And it just kept getting worse because by then teachers had pegged him as a troublemaker. He just gave up," said his mother Denise Kazouris-Lange. "I didn't know what to do with him."
By April, his uncontrollable behavior had landed him a spot at Safety Harbor Disciplinary, formerly known as IBIS, an intensive behavior improvement system. A second school, North Ward Disciplinary, serves students in South Pinellas.
"At first I was really apprehensive," Kazouris-Lange said. "I thought he was going to be with really rotten kids who were stuck away at a place where all the unwanted troublemakers get sent when the public school system gets sick of them. But, boy, was I disillusioned."
The first week he came home beaming, saying he couldn't wait to go to school the next day. Every morning he got himself up, showered and combed his hair to perfection. He didn't even complain about having to wear the mandatory tucked-in, white T-shirt and black pants.
"I couldn't believe it. I wondered what had happened to my kid," Kazouris-Lange added.
What happened was a structured, disciplined program that teaches sixth- to ninth-graders to stop and think before they act. Students are not treated like outcasts, but like individuals who are capable of making their own decisions. And if they don't make the right choice, they are held accountable for their actions.
There are currently 53 students, who, like Axios, have been reassigned and bused from other schools because of major conduct violations. But the number can change weekly. Maximum capacity is 100, with a 15-1 student-teacher ratio. Stays range from 90 to 180 days, depending on a student's progress.
Besides the strict dress code, no jewelry or book bags are allowed. They cause distractions.
Students are required to set both daily and long-term goals, which are recorded in a portfolio that is reviewed on a regular basis. Class and school goals are posted in large letters and hang in hallways, classrooms and even the lunchroom.
Praise and encouragement flow freely.
Good behavior during the week is rewarded with the Friday Special, two hours of recreational time. Not-so-good actions result in a 90-minute life skills class, a lecture most want to avoid.
"Everything we do here is for a reason. It's not just a routine," principal Keith Davis said. "It's all done to help them achieve at their highest level, not just in school but in life."
Davis, who has worked with troubled kids for 20 years, has been at the school since the program was implemented seven years ago. Seven teachers, one behavior specialist, a guidance counselor and an intervention specialist are assigned to the school.
The school, built in 1926, sits on 6 acres, providing a calm, aesthetic environment where teens can let off steam through recreational activities.
Since the inception of the program, only about seven teens have been expelled. As for the success rate, Davis said it's hard to track once they leave because of the mobility rate in Florida, one reason many students end up in the program to begin with.
"They do experience success here," Davis said. "And for some, it's probably the first success they have ever experienced in school."
If you ask Axios, he'll be the first to tell you, his is a success story.
"When I came, the teachers saw me as a regular person. That helped changed my attitude," he said. "I've learned to think before I act and that if you don't make the right choices, you pay the consequences. I don't want to end up in jail. I want my mom to be proud of me. I want to go to college, play football and get a good job. For me, this place was a second chance."