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Citrus High cracks down on fighting

It's not a threat, school officials say. But students need to realize that fights and disruptions could have legal consequences.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

INVERNESS -- A schoolwide announcement at Citrus High School last week was a far cry from the typical news about upcoming athletic events or extra-curricular club meetings.

In a message televised to all classrooms, assistant principal Rick Darby put everyone on notice: From now on, students caught in physical or verbal disputes that disrupt the school's educational process will be arrested.

School Resource Officer Tim Langer was beside him, showing law enforcement's agreement with the message.

The announcement showed the school is ratcheting up its response to incidents that used to be dealt with in less severe ways.

"This is an educational institution. It's not an area where kids come and take out their anger on one another," Darby told the Times last week. "We're talking about stopping serious situations that interrupt the educational process. We're talking about profanity, screaming at each other, threats.

"We're teachers here and we can't do this and be successful when this is going on," he said. "The kids are not given the express privilege of interrupting the school"

Arrest has always been a possible consequence of student fights. Students battering one another or school staff have ended in arrests before, but not always. In arguments, handcuffs and a trip to the Citrus County Jail are even less frequent.

That could soon change.

"It's the Jerry Springer Show," said Deputy Ron Frink, a school resource officer. "You have two people having an altercation and instead of having the two people come into the office and solving the situation, they get into it and everyone gathers around to see a fight."

School officials said that no specific incident prompted the change, but Darby said the school's current overcrowding has contributed to the situation.

He likened it to what he experienced in high school. With 1,200 students trying to get into lockers in the same hallway between classes, sometimes students made contact.

"They'd bump into you. Some would see that as affectionate. Some would see it as malicious," he said.

Citrus High principal Michael Mullen said he has received several calls from parents asking about the announcement. Some said the school should have made an issue of fights earlier. Some say they don't understand why the announcement was made.

"This was not meant to be a threat," said Mullen. "It doesn't do any good to threaten kids. As any adult knows, their brains don't function like ours. We just think it's good to let them know what the situation is and what the consequences can be. If it deters one child, then it was worth the time to say it.

"We are talking about major altercations here," Mullen said. "These verbal altercations lead to physical altercations and a lot of them get started with two kids just jawing at one another."

Mullen said students must know that profanity, racial slurs and arguments in which neither side is willing to back down are not acceptable and could lead to the students going to jail.

"We wanted to let our kids know that we were drawing the line. We are not going to solve our disputes that way," he said.

"Our goal is always to stop it before it happens because we don't want to deal with the aftermath . . . . There is nothing more discouraging to me than to see kids suspended or go to jail . . . . Then we can't do our job. It tells me we've failed that child."

Although the school district does not keep information on how many students have been arrested, they keep records on battery and assault incidents.

During the last school year, there were 322 assaults and 430 batteries countywide. This year to date, the number is 49 assaults and 276 batteries. Batteries involve physical contact between the parties. Assaults are threats by words or action, according to the district's definition.

"What happens a lot of times when you're dealing with high school kids or any kids, they forget that if something happens on campus, it can have law enforcement consequences," Frink said.

"The kids don't think about the fact that school is the same thing as out in the community. If you punch someone out, you're going to face the consequences."

The difference in a school is that there is a law against disrupting an educational facility. The law isn't very specific about what a disruption would be. But while Frink said that law isn't widely used to make arrests, it can be and students need to know that.

Darby said school officials use some basic rules in determining when an incident warrants law enforcement involvement. Students are expected to respect the authority figures at a school and they step in and ask people to back down or end an incident. If the students don't comply, that is a warning flag, Darby said.

Frink said school officials generally try to handle the case first on their own, depending on the circumstances. But ultimately the school and law enforcement officers decide what to do together if the incident continues.

While the decision to bring law enforcement into an incident may seem subjective, director of student services Bonnie Hardiman said it is clear. "Is this escalating beyond the two individuals involved? Is it impacting other areas of the school?" she said.

Other signs would be students gathering around when they should be in class, teachers coming out of classrooms to settle the problem.

"It's a fine line even for a deputy to define what is a disruptive act in which they should arrest a student and what isn't," Mullen said. "But if it stops the educational process and there are three or four administrators there and a couple of teachers needed to stop it, then you've got a problem."

Frink said it depends on the details of each situation.

"In any type of disruption, it's officer discretion," he said. "And every situation is based on its own merits."

Assistant State Attorney Jeffery Smith said he had not been informed of the change in policy. As the only prosecutor in Citrus County who handles juvenile cases, Smith stands to see a large increase in his case load.

"I'm going to be awfully busy, so I'm hoping the schools will save it for the major cases," he said. But, he said, the crackdown won't change the way he reviews cases. Smith said he'll prosecute the students if necessary.

"If an arrest is made, if it's got any merit to it, I'll file the charges."

The disruption of the education process issue has been a familiar issue in recent years, especially with the number of bomb threats in the schools.

Over the last several weeks, there have been five such threats, two at Crystal River High, two at Citrus High and one at Citrus Springs Middle School. In each case, the students responsible were located and arrested.

Frink said the honest discussion of those arrests and the consequences provide an education for students. After the last arrest following a Crystal River bomb threat, Frink got on the public address system to say that the arrest was made. The student was facing expulsion from school for up to two years, several weeks in a juvenile detention center and possibly sentencing to a higher level facility. Frink also told the students that, even though a cell phone was the source of the call, deputies still found the caller.

"We need them to realize that, in an instant, we know where the calls are coming from," he said. Actually, in the recent threats, some have been by phone, others by note. And arrests were made each time.

"We've received them just about every way and we're making the arrests," Frink said. "And when we catch them, we're not going to play."

-- Times staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report

Text of the announcement made to students:

"We asked everyone to tune in this afternoon to try to avoid some future problems and disruptions on our campus. At Citrus High School we have a tradition of success. Through school administration, faculty and staff as well as the school resource officer, many problems are resolved quickly, quietly and effectively. We need everyone's cooperation and support for this success to continue. Through administration and the SRO we have been able to avoid some arrests here on campus. However, all students need to understand that an arrest is a possibility any time the educational process is disrupted. This would include any time a student or students cause or are involved in a situation that hinders or interferes with the rights of others to learn or to teach. We do not want anyone to feel threatened by this announcement but we do want everyone to be fully informed. Everyone please understand that beginning now that situations such as fighting and verbal battles that disrupt the educational process will very likely warrant an arrest."

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