After a year of fights and arrests, Wharton High hopes for calmer times ahead

Multiple fights and nearly 70 arrests have plagued Tampa's Wharton High School this year. Hillsborough County school officials are looking at ways to get a handle on the situation, including trying to better engage students who are bused to the school from North Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Multiple fights and nearly 70 arrests have plagued Tampa's Wharton High School this year. Hillsborough County school officials are looking at ways to get a handle on the situation, including trying to better engage students who are bused to the school from North Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published May 2, 2018

TAMPA — Jennifer Dunlap kept her son home from Wharton High School on Feb. 8.

A week before 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a rumor was going around Wharton about violence at a school assembly.

"We are extremely frustrated that he had to lose a day of learning," Dunlap wrote in a letter to Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins.

"Why, why, why are we catering to these students? How do we in good conscience send our son to school on Monday morning?"

In a year when the public is focused on the horrors of school shootings, Wharton, situated among some of the Tampa Bay area's wealthiest neighborhoods, has been plagued by a different kind of violence. While nothing close to Parkland, a stream of outbursts has led to dozens of arrests and created serious concern among parents.

Since February, when violence hit a high point, the school district has taken steps to calm parents, tighten procedures and put Wharton on a better path for next year.

Officials held a half-dozen parent and community meetings. And on Tuesday, the School Board approved a new principal — Michael Rowan, transferring from King High — to replace longtime Wharton principal Bradley Woods. Beyond those changes, everything from painting the walls to beefing up teacher training is under consideration.

But a closer look at Wharton, through police and other public records, shows its problems were not created overnight. In many ways they are the consequence of choices — by parents, students and a society with conflicting agendas about education.

• • •

Many in New Tampa assume Wharton buses in students from 15 miles away, from lower-income North Tampa, for racial diversity, and that it's a privilege for those students to attend the school.

That's not the case.

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Wharton opened in 1997, when New Tampa's population was sparse. Its attendance zone reached as far south as Busch Gardens, same as now.

Freedom High opened in 2002, several miles south of Wharton. But, rather than redirecting all the North Tampa students there, the district carved out a territory for Freedom that included Tampa Palms and parts of Lutz.

Enrollment grew at Wharton. The district added classrooms.

Then another thing happened: School choice. Families, including those in Wharton's zone, started sending high-achieving children to King High for its International Baccalaureate program, to Tampa Bay Technical High for its magnet program and to the Brooks DeBartolo charter school.

Today, Wharton draws one-third of its students from North Tampa. While the communities closest to the school are more than half white, Wharton has more African-American students (769) than white students (750) and a poverty rate — measured by participation in the free lunch program — of 58 percent.

School officials say about 90 percent of Wharton's students do not cause any trouble, and the remaining 10 percent could be from anywhere. Judging by addresses in the sheriff's reports, slightly more than half involved in the past year's disputes lived in North Tampa.

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Fights happened in class and, more often, in and around the cafeteria. Teachers and deputies were knocked around. Assistant principal Ray Dudley had his nose broken. Woods, the principal, broke up fights. "You don't wait for law enforcement," he said.

Students fought over phones and headphones, to defend a girl who was disrespected, and after someone was hit during a pencil-tossing episode in math class.

Two girls beat a third girl on Feb. 2, even though she told administrators ahead of time that they had threatened her. She was given a pass restriction, which meant she was to change classes after the halls cleared. But the girls waited outside her class. They forced the door open, pulling the teacher outside with it. Then they attacked the girl.

"She got pulled out of the classroom by her hair where they both continued hitting her until another student pulled them away," the report said.

Other passages from the 40 sheriff's reports.

• Aug. 30: "While the victim was on the ground, the arrestee repeatedly stomped on his head with his foot. He stomped his head 3-4 times before he was pulled off by other students."

• Oct. 10: "The victim did not suffer any visible injuries, however she is visibly six months pregnant with the defendant's baby."

• Nov. 27: "They each had a hold of the other's hair, and both refused to cease upon command of law enforcement. Deputy McCarrell and I had to physically pry the hands of both girls open, before we could separate them."

• Jan. 22: "The disturbance required several teachers and administrators to break up the fight and control the crowd of students."

Then, three days after the Parkland killings: "The defendant presented the victim with a letter titled death, and containing several coded messages referencing bad things happening to her. The letter went on to say that … he feels like committing mass murder."

• • •

Discipline problems are not new to Wharton.

District leaders commission an elaborate teacher survey every year to measure what they call the school "climate."

Just 19 percent of Wharton teachers agreed in 2017 that "students at this school follow rules of conduct," only slightly better than the previous year's 17 percent. District-wide, 67 percent agreed.

In the yearly count of expulsion cases, Wharton finished a close second to Freedom, with 17.

Work to bring more order began early in the school year. The school tightened access to rest rooms, generating some backlash from parents.

Parents questioned whether their children were learning all they could in honors classes. "Quite often there are kids in those classes that are not at the level we would assume they would be at and they can be far more disruptive at times than we were prepared for them to be," wrote PTSA officer Kristie Scism, on behalf of some families.

Scism, too, kept her children home on Feb. 8. Her daughter was terrified, she wrote. "She had heard the rumor that guns were going to be brought to the assembly that day, and she was almost sick. I was a little shocked when the assembly wasn't canceled."

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More than 200 parents showed up at a Feb. 19 meeting where Woods delivered a long explanation of the district's discipline policies. He and Area Superintendent Anna Brown walked them through what happens after a student is arrested. The estimated 67 who had been arrested were not coming back, Brown assured them.

They announced a thorough inspection by a district delegation. They called on adults with marketing experience to spread the word that Wharton — which has a C rating from the state — is a great school.

Some parents walked away satisfied. Others sensed the discussion had veered toward a blanket indictment of poorer students as the cause of the school's troubles.

Chief of Schools Harrison Peters, who supervises Woods and Brown, seemed to share the concern.

The parent meeting was "the perfect opportunity to clear the air and take a strong stance in support of our children that are 'bused' in," he wrote in an email to administrators. "I believe we missed a golden opportunity to fight for children."

Peters continued: "All kids are welcomed and celebrated at Wharton. We love them and embrace them, and we are convinced that no other school in this district can prepare them for life like Wharton can. We do not give up on kids."

Scism, who is against stereotyping of students, applauded Peters' remarks.

She said she was troubled by an explanation given for some of the incidents in February, that students were acting out conflicts from their neighborhoods. While no one specified a neighborhood, she took that phrase as code for the predominantly African-American areas surrounding the University of South Florida.

A handful of similar remarks were made at the meetings in March and April.

But the North Tampa communities were not well represented. Brunette Saunders, who lives in North Tampa, was the only Wharton parent to attend a Van Buren Middle School event scheduled for the benefit of families in the area.

"Our area is horrible when it comes to showing up for our children," she said. "It's not a good dynamic that we have."

• • •

No one yet has a fail-safe solution for engaging the interest of Wharton's disaffected students.

Students told the district team they want the school to look nice. They want clean rest rooms. They want better communication about upcoming events, and for classes to be interesting.

About 50 students and parents took part in a beautification day on April 28, a Saturday. There is talk of bringing in mentors next year.

Training is under way for teachers who, in Woods' view, are not doing all they can to hold students' interest.

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Scism wants to raise money to help students who cannot afford to join after-school clubs. But even if cost were not an issue, geography remains a problem. Wharton's activity bus is only for athletes, and there are no public buses that far north.

School Board member Cindy Stuart, who is elected in New Tampa, did some research and found that Wharton has "the craziest boundary of all of them." She suggested the district consider a change, perhaps when it draws boundaries for its next new high school.

Until then, area leaders said they will try different strategies to help students feel connected, including outreach efforts at North Tampa's churches and parks.

Dunlap, who wrote the letter after the gun threat in February, is trying to be optimistic as her son finishes his junior year. "I believe they're trying to make some changes and trying to head in the right direction," she said.

"I have no problem with kids getting bused in, and I don't care who is there or where they are from. My issue is that they should be there and behave."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol