Fights and beatings have reached crisis levels at Greco Middle, a Temple Terrace school beset by staff shortages and daily worries about personal safety, according to a letter sent this week to the Hillsborough County School Board.
Physical education teacher Christie Como, 47, said she was pushed and punched Tuesday by a 12-year-old student who held her down by the hair during a classroom disturbance. The Temple Terrace Police charged the student with felony battery.
“Individual children are getting beat up by gangs of students,” Como wrote in an email to the School Board, which she shared with the Tampa Bay Times Friday.
“They are getting kicked in the head and slammed into the concrete. They are blacking out because they cannot defend themselves from the gang of kids attacking them. No student should be in fear of getting jumped at school yet that is what is happening every day.”
Como attached a video that was posted to YouTube of her altercation with the student. YouTube has since taken the video down.
Como said high-level district officials have been visiting the school for weeks. District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said steps have already been taken to increase support at Greco, including the hiring of an additional security officer, assistant principal, success coach and clerical staff.
Como, however, insisted, “I’m worried for the safety of my colleagues as well as the students.”
She suggested students’ access to their phones has made matters worse. “If there weren’t cell phones on students, these attacks couldn’t be set up and students wouldn’t be notified of upcoming fights,” she wrote.
She attached a picture of a white board that was in principal Wendy Rauld’s office, showing troubling statistics about Greco. Among them: 87 fights in 31 days, at least 10 employees out every day, and the phrase, “third most violent school in Florida.”
Arja said that, based on the numbers, Greco was probably being described as the state’s third most violent middle school. She said there have not been 87 fights, but 87 students involved in fights. And the 10 missing staff include four vacancies.
Arja said there are plans, starting next week, to provide the school with more social emotional supports and positive behavior supports “to consistently reinforce the behaviors we expect of all students.” Already, she said, changes have been made in the cafeteria to provide more structure at lunch.
Como joined the district in 2019. She worked at Memorial Middle School in Seminole Heights before taking a transfer to Greco. “In 20 years of teaching, I have never worked at a more chaotic place,” she wrote. Those 20 years include jobs in Tennessee, Pasco County and New York City.
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Greco, on Fowler Avenue, has 889 students but is zoned for 1,773. More than 750 students opt for district-run magnet or independent charter schools including Williams Middle, which has 107 students from the Greco area, and Terrace Community Middle, which has 99.
In state tests this spring, 54 percent of Greco’s students scored at the lowest of five levels in reading and 61 percent were at the lowest level in math.
The district has introduced numerous programs to make Greco a stronger school academically including a STEM academy and, more recently, an International Baccalaureate program.
Andrew Olson, the principal who launched the IB program in 2019, has since moved to another district.
Rauld, an assistant principal at Greco, was promoted into the principal’s position in June. “Our brand new, first year principal, who is awesome, has been set up to fail,” Como wrote in her email to the School Board. “I truly feel so sorry for her.”
District and teachers’ union leaders say Greco’s problems are not unique.
“We’re concerned about this situation at Greco,” said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers’ union. “Greco, like many of our schools, is currently understaffed, due to cuts and the inability to hire additional new people.”
Throughout the district there are shortages. Kelly Educational Staffing, which provides the district’s substitute teachers, is able to fill only about half of all vacancies this year, the School Board was told recently. Among the steps it has taken to support Greco, Arja said the district is asking Kelly to prioritize the school when it makes assignments.
District leaders also point to family stress, skills gaps in children who spent as much as a year and a half away from school because of COVID-19, and a general increase in aggressive behavior both inside and outside school walls.
“Across the state and the nation, we have seen the pandemic has caused angst among adults and children,” Arja said. “Many of our children are not emotionally equipped to handle their feelings and may not know how to resolve conflict in a positive manner.”
Jessica Vaughn, the School Board member whose electoral district includes Greco, agreed that what is happening at Greco “almost seems to be symptomatic of the community in general.”
Nevertheless, Vaughn has asked Superintendent Addison Davis Davis repeatedly to conduct a survey of front-line employees to find out what they are experiencing and how the district can be supportive. The district has not conducted a teacher climate survey since early 2020.