A sixth grader at Bay Point Middle School stormed off when an assistant principal tried to reprimand her for fighting. A seventh grader threw a juice box at another boy’s head. Two students tried to jump over a third child, landing on his neck several times. One student hit another in the face because the first child had stepped on his shoes.
This all happened in August, according to dozens of St. Petersburg police reports that provide a glimpse of the student-on-student conflict in one of Pinellas County’s public middle schools.
Bay Point doesn’t have the most disciplinary incidents on record and it doesn’t have the least. But the reports illustrate the challenges schools face in moderating behavior during the turbulent, post-pandemic years of early adolescence.
When Treia Martin, the mother of a sixth grader, raised concerns, she says school leaders barely acknowledged her and tried to explain away the problems. It’s the kind of response that helped launch the “parental rights” movement, with families complaining that they are neither heard nor respected when they assert their place as partners in their children’s education.
The tide has spilled into politics, from pitched battles over COVID-19 safety to controversies over school libraries.
But Martin is not complaining about books or masks. She is not protesting against sex education.
She is alarmed at videos that her 11-year-old son shows her regularly of fighting in his school and on the bus. She’s worried about the kind of behavior reflected in 42 police reports between August and February that described troublesome events such as “brawling” or “battery.”
School administrators say they are working to make Bay Point Middle safer, and seeing steady progress. But Martin wishes for more.
She would like to feel like someone is taking her concerns seriously.
Martin, 34, who works remotely for a technology company, does not consider herself an overprotective parent.
She and her son, Siam Sinchat, moved back and forth from Tampa to the Philadelphia area, where she grew up, during his early childhood.
Wanting more stability and a home close to Siam’s father, she bought a two-bedroom house in St. Petersburg’s Pallanza Park neighborhood in 2021.
Siam loved Lakewood Elementary, where he completed fifth grade. The teachers there were attentive to the education plan for his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. An outgoing child, Siam made friends easily.
The first signs of trouble when he entered sixth grade, Martin said, were the chronically late buses. She learned that a shortage of drivers was forcing some to do double runs.
But Siam also said the drivers would sometimes pull over when kids started fighting and arguing.
At a parents’ meeting, Martin said she learned that Bay Point, with 770 students, has a D grade from the state.
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Siam, meanwhile, was coming home with tales of fights. He showed her videos of students throwing punches, pulling hair and hurling each other on the ground and against the walls. His friends at the house talked about the fights too. They said Bay Point was known as “a fight school.”
Martin said she tried to discuss the matter with school officials. She showed them the videos. She said they seemed more concerned about who was taking and sharing the videos than what was on them.
She reached out to Maress Scott, a community leader who began speaking out against youth violence after he lost his son to gunfire. She said principal Cameshia Ware at first seemed open to the idea of allowing Scott to help out at Bay Point. Then, after Martin had met with Scott, Ware told her she had decided against bringing Scott on board.
“We have a lot of processes and programs already on our campus that I’m seeing success with,” Ware told the Tampa Bay Times. “I was not interested in that program that he had.”
Siam told the Times about two occasions when he was roughed up at school.
A student he considers a friend threw a basketball at his head while they were playing a game. Siam said he pushed back. Eventually, he said, “We worked it out.”
The second incident happened as Siam was joking with a girl and her boyfriend got angry. “He said, ‘Stop trying to impress my girlfriend,’” Siam recalled. At one point, Siam said the student chased after him, threatened him, picked him up and dropped him on his head.
He said he walks with other students around campus to stay safe.
“You can be anywhere,” he said. “It can be at the bus circle, it can be at the bathrooms, everywhere.”
During email conversations with school officials, Martin said she has been told she can transfer Siam to another school. But doing so would interfere with her work schedule, and taking Siam out of Bay Point will not help the rest of the students, she said.
She feels she is not taken seriously, her concerns dismissed. Administrators have told her she cannot imagine the trauma that some students have faced, though she endured family instability during her own childhood.
The right direction
Ware, 43, was the assistant principal at Azalea Middle before she was named principal of Bay Point Middle in June. Based on discipline statistics reported to the state, Azalea is a much tougher school.
The most recent statistics, from 2021-22, show Bay Point in the median range of middle schools, with 78 reported incidents requiring discipline. Those included 21 physical attacks, 17 disruptions on campus and 15 fights.
“Am I saying that we don’t have fights on campus? No, I’m not saying that,” Ware said in an interview that included the district’s transformation schools chief Donnika Jones. “Am I saying our fighting has diminished and dropped? Yes, I am.”
Ware and Jones said much of the trouble comes from the students’ age.
“They’re learning to be communicators, and sometimes they communicate poorly,” Jones said.
They said the conflicts often originate off campus. The police reports describe a brawl on Sept. 1 that resulted from one girl mocking another girl’s yearbook photo on social media.
But that isn’t always the case. Two of the conflicts in the police reports were over bags of chips. On Sept. 22, a student threw two calculators after classroom trash talk escalated.
Students were described shoving school employees or threatening violence if a teacher did not allow them to leave the classroom or enter their online grades quickly enough.
The frequency of police reports has fallen over the year from 11 in September to three in February. Ware’s strategies are showing good results, said Jones, who oversees a group of 12 elementary schools and five middle schools that receive extra support from the Pinellas district.
The school has organized educational field trips to places such as Busch Gardens, Tallahassee and downtown St. Petersburg. The outings broaden the students’ horizons and help them become more focused on their studies, the administrators said.
In-school suspensions have been replaced with an “alternative bell schedule” that has the offending students in class from noon until 5:20 p.m.
That system gets the attention of parents who must rearrange transportation and child care. More significantly, it removes the students’ opportunity to mingle with the larger population during the early morning and dismissal hours, which are when fights often happen. It takes away the audience they sometimes crave.
Ware has looked for opportunities to ask the students what would motivate them. She learned that they want “dress-down” days when the uniform code is relaxed and they can wear Crocs. They want school dances. The eighth grade students want to be allowed to walk to lunch without being accompanied by adults.
The school has enhanced a program that awards points for good work and character.
School district statistics show the number of tardies at Bay Point Middle has fallen from a high of 3,966 in October to 2,605 in February. Alternative bell schedule cases have declined from 206 in November, a holiday month when the system was new, to 114 for February.
As for the interactions between the administrators and Treia Martin, it’s been tense.
Ware said she remembers only one time when she has spoken directly with Martin.
She and Jones pointed out that no one on the staff can discuss incidents that appear on the fight videos. All students, including Siam, are protected by privacy laws. That means that if the school has taken action the staff cannot discuss it.
The videos themselves are a violation of the school code of conduct, which requires students to keep their phones turned off and packed away unless they are given permission to use them.
As for Martin’s statements about not being taken seriously, Jones said, “I don’t think we can speak to the way that she felt.”
As the school year enters its final months, there is still no agreement between the two sides.
“What’s happening isn’t OK,” Martin said. “Sometimes when I lie down at night I ask: ‘Am I going overboard?’ And then I’ll watch these videos again and I’m like, ‘This is crazy. This is crazy.’”
Jones, however, said, “I’m really proud of the work that Dr. Ware is doing as the leader of Bay Point and I see so many great things happening, not only for the scholars but also for the staff. And I think the school is moving in the right direction.”
Let us know
The Tampa Bay Times this year is exploring the theme of parents who feel alienated by their children’s public school experience. Do you have a story to tell? Please contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.