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Middle school slashes suspension rate

A year after having the most student suspensions among similar schools, Largo Middle cuts the number by 77 percent.

In 1999, Largo Middle School ranked No. 1 among Pinellas County middle schools for its suspensions, and some other area principals expressed surprise at the number of arrests there.

A year later, those figures have plummeted.

Suspensions at Largo Middle are down 77 percent. That's the largest decrease for any school in the county, be it elementary, middle or high school, Pinellas schools spokesman Ron Stone said.

Also, student arrests there have decreased 44 percent, police records show.

"It's remarkable, really," school principal Bill Cooper said.

He said new programs, strict enforcement and incentives that make students want to behave resulted in the decline, which switched Largo from having more suspensions than any county middle school to having among the fewest.

Other schools, including Osceola Middle and Dunedin Highland Middle, saw increases in suspensions.

Largo administrators issued 105 suspensions from August 1999 through mid-January, the first semester of the 1999-2000 school year. That's down 77 percent, compared with figures for the same period in 1998, when 462 suspensions were issued, records show.

From April 1998 through March 1999, police made 85 arrests at the school for crimes such as battery, possession of marijuana and thefts. From April 1999 through March, there were 48 arrests.

The changes are a culmination of several efforts, officials say.

Cooper took over at the school in February 1998 after the former principal resigned. During an interview last year, Cooper and school Resource Officer Paula Crosby, who was also new to the school, credited their stricter enforcement efforts for a large volume of suspensions and arrests.

But now that the new way of doing things has settled in and students know the law of the land, officials say, the suspension and arrest numbers have dropped.

"I think they got the message across that school is a place to learn," said Largo police Lt. Carla Boudrot, Crosby's boss.

New programs and incentives began to take shape last year, Cooper said.

For one, administrators started an aggressive incentive campaign encouraging students to follow the rules. For instance, students who have gotten several referrals or detentions aren't allowed to attend activities such as school assemblies, dances and talent shows, Cooper said.

"The good kids are highly regarded," Cooper said.

Also, video cameras positioned throughout school hallways and near the outdoor bike rack have discouraged mischief. "I think generally, it's calmed everyone down," he said.

The school hired an additional administrator in August who tends to areas of student discipline, such as referrals and tardy sweeps. When Cooper came aboard in 1998, he said, it wasn't unheard of for 100 students to be late during a single class period. Now, Cooper said, about 20 to 25 students are generally late to class.

Other measures worked to change the attitude of students and the faculty, Cooper said. Teachers got special training in different methods of managing their classrooms and different student behaviors, he said.

Also, special education classes that had been grouped together in one area of the school were integrated among other classrooms, allowing special education students to observe other students' behavior, Cooper said.

Stone, the schools spokesman, said only Tarpon Springs High School came close to Largo Middle in the percentage drop for suspensions. Tarpon Springs saw a 66 percent decrease in suspensions, Stone said.

The two schools have one thing in common: the On-campus Intervention Program, Stone said. The program was established at Largo Middle in October and allows the school to keep some students onsite, rather than suspending them from school. Students who have committed non-violent offenses such as cursing at a teacher or acting out in class are sent here.

"A lot more schools are trying to move into that area because it seems like it's working in the schools that have it," Stone said.

Cooper points out, however, that the program did not have a significant impact on the decline in suspensions during Largo Middle's first semester. From October through early January, he said, the school issued only 39 in-school suspensions.

But Cooper suspects that the in-school suspension program will have a much greater impact in coming years as it becomes more organized and effective. From mid-January through Monday, the school issued 184 in-school suspensions, Cooper said.

Largo Middle got an overall grade of "C" from the state last year, Cooper said. According to state guidelines, suspensions were a problem area, and administrators keyed in on ways to curb student mischief. But teachers continue to suspend those students who deserve it, Cooper said.

"Our teachers are not getting soft," he said. "The students are responding."