Classmate charged, but questions remain for family whose son was beaten in school locker room

A black student was slammed to the floor and punched repeatedly by a white classmate following a physical education class last week at Blake Academy in Lakeland.
An eighth-grade boy can be seen punching a seventh-grader in a locker room in this screenshot from a video taken inside a Polk County middle school.
An eighth-grade boy can be seen punching a seventh-grader in a locker room in this screenshot from a video taken inside a Polk County middle school. [ Twitter ]
Published Sept. 17, 2019|Updated Sept. 18, 2019

Lauren Springfield was in a state of shock. She felt like she was having an out-of-body experience as she watched an older student kick and punch her 12-year-old son in a middle-school locker room. He grabbed the younger boy around the neck and shoved him over a bench onto the floor, then pinned him and continued to punch him in the face and head.

The Lakeland mother tried to reconcile the images on the cellphone video a neighbor had sent her with what a school nurse had told her husband earlier in the day, that their seventh-grade son had “been in some type of fight.”

“There were really no words,” she said.

Lauren’s husband, Brandon, was “infuriated” by what he saw in the video. He first wondered why his son didn’t do more to try to defend himself before realizing he probably didn’t have much choice.

“Honestly, now, looking at it, he probably did the best thing he probably could have done,” Brandon said. “Try to cover yourself and be safe and weather the storm.”

Video of the attack (which can be seen here), which took place during the changeout following a physical education class last week at Blake Academy in Lakeland, has gone viral on social media, resulting in tens of thousands of comments, shares and reactions.

In the week since, the student seen punching the Springfields’ son — an eighth grader — has been charged with a crime and suspended from school for 10 days. Several others will receive discipline from the school, including suspensions.

But the couple still has questions about the incident and concerns about the safety of their son. Mostly, they say, their inquiries have been met with silence.

Which is one of the reasons Lauren Springfield hopes to speak to the school board at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Not to be combative, she said. But to try to start a dialogue.

“I have tried to be very respectful about this, because, obviously, running a school district is hard,” she said. “We get that. But at a certain point, the story needs to be heard.”

The Springfields’ son, whom they asked not be named in this story, had been at Blake Academy (not to be confused with Blake High School in Tampa) for only a month and a half when the attack occurred.

The boy is interested in computer technology, and the school offered a journalism class that he enjoys. He recently signed up to be an editor.

The family was placed on a waiting list when it first applied to the school and was “so very excited” when it found out just a week and a half before the start of the school year that its son had been accepted.

So you can imagine their surprise when Brandon received a call from a school nurse on September 9 telling him that his son had been involved in a fight.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

When a followup call from the school didn’t materialize, Lauren drove out to the school. As she waited at the front desk, she said the school resource officer approached and asked how she had heard about the incident. Told the school nurse had phoned, the SRO said the nurse wasn’t supposed to have done that yet.

The SRO accompanied Lauren into an assistant principal’s office, where she was told that her son said he had been “attacked from the back or slammed down.” Other students still needed to be interviewed, so Lauren went to the nurse’s office with her son.

She could see a welt growing on his head. He was bleeding from the top of his eyebrows. His eyes were starting to swell, and he said he was bleeding from his gums.

When she returned to the assistant principal’s office, Lauren said she was told she and Brandon could do one of two things: allow the school to handle the situation or press charges.

As she left the office, she noticed the nurse was shining a flashlight at the back of her son’s head, where a lump appeared to be forming.

She took him to a doctor’s office to be checked out, then returned home, her thoughts solely with her son.

But then she received a message from a neighbor, saying she needed to look at a video he was sending.

“Getting slammed on his back is one thing,” Lauren said. “But what we saw (on the video) was completely different. It wasn’t just like a little scuffle. This wasn’t some little tap on the shoulder or anything like that. It was a legitimate thing at that point.”

The Springfields forwarded the video to the assistant principal, saying that it showed something much different than what they had discussed earlier that day and needed to be addressed in the morning.

When they asked the next day what the school planned to do about the incident, they were told the school couldn’t discuss disciplinary matters to protect the privacy of the students involved.

Worried for their son’s safety, the Springfields went to the courthouse to try to seek an injunction. But the judge denied the request because the attack was a first-time occurrence.

The family continued to seek answers from the school and got a call from Polk County Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd that evening. They were told that the superintendent would meet with the sheriff’s office the next day to try to get more information.

But as the family waited for a return call the next day, they instead received a notification saying that a news conference called by the school district and the Lakeland Police Department was taking place at the school.

“We’re here because we believe in ensuring safety for all of our students on all of our campuses,” Byrd said at the start of the news conference. “So, when we see something that’s reported to us, we’re going to act very swiftly, and we’re going to make sure that we’re here to support.”

In front of a phalanx of cameras and microphones set up outside the school, the superintendent publicly apologized to the Springfields.

“Those are things that should never, ever happen on our campuses. Never,” Byrd said. “Our children come to school to learn. We’re here to join forces to ensure that safety is first and foremost so that they can learn."

Lakeland Police Department Capt. Steven Pacheco, speaking at the same news conference, said that the student who attacked the Springfields’ son had been charged with misdemeanor simple battery.

The school has taken up the student’s discipline according to its code of conduct, Byrd said. That discipline includes a suspension of at least 10 days as the school continues to review any other videos of the incident that might exist.

“The student could come back to school if we didn’t find anything else,” Byrd said.

Three other students, some of whom recorded the videos of the incident, will be disciplined by the school in accordance with its code of conduct policy, Pacheco said.

In addition, the district is investigating the physical education teacher, with discipline to follow there, as well, Byrd said. The teacher, who has an office in the locker room, was “in the area" when the incident occurred, but the district wants to see where the teacher was “in proximity to those students.”

“I’ve asked that same question," Byrd said in response to a reporter’s query. “Where was the teacher? The teachers are supposed to ensure that all students are safe when they’re in their care.”

Pacheco said the preliminary investigation suggested that the attack appeared to stem from statements made by one of the students.

“We don’t think it was anything more than a statement that was made to another student," he said, "and another student took that statement to heart and acted upon it.”

The Springfields’ son, an honors student whom his father describes as a “bookworm,” told his parents he didn’t even know the kids who attacked him. The only interaction they ever had was in gym class, which is multi-age.

He wondered if the attack had something to do with a conversation he had earlier with a girl in his Algebra class. The girl called him short. He responded, his mother said, “Well, you’re pretty much my height, and you’re older than me.” He said the girl didn’t appear upset about the comment, and they didn’t get into a heated argument.

Later, however, another student approached the boy and told him, “Stop talking about my friends.”

There is another element complicating the situation. The Springfields’ boy is black. The boy attacking him is white, as are the others in the video.

While the Springfields said they don’t have reason to suspect that the attack was racially motivated, they can’t dismiss the possibility, either.

Or think that the response might have been different if the students’ roles had been reversed.

“It’s hard to get by that bias,” Lauren said, “but I think we have to admit that it exists.”

Asked about the possibility at the news conference, Byrd, who is black, said, “I can’t say if race was involved.

"It shouldn’t happen to any kid. No kid should come to school and that happen to them.”

Moving forward, the school resource officer will work with the school to develop a plan to make sure that its students are safe, Pacheco said.

In the meantime, the Springfields continue to wait for answers.

While they aren’t currently pursuing legal action or considering changing schools, they want to see lasting change that ensures student safety.

“I’d say my hope level is not very high at this point,” Lauren Springfield said. “I think there’s a huge difference between talking and action. It’s one thing to say you care, to say this is wrong, to say, ‘I don’t want this happening in our schools.’ It’s another thing to really implement changes within the school, because they take time, they take dedication, they take passion, and they take being empathetic toward kids.”