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Turmoil in class, and cry for help

Published December 22, 2006

[Times photo: Martha Rial]
Principal Antelia Campbell shows a boy's restroom that was vandalized with graffiti at Gibbs High School in St Petersburg.

Rampant vandalism, threatening behavior and disturbing levels of student defiance this semester have plagued Gibbs High, one of Pinellas County's most venerable schools.

The situation came to a head this week as a group of teachers sent an unsigned letter to superintendent Clayton Wilcox, saying they were fearful and frustrated.

Already aware of problems, Wilcox came to campus unannounced Tuesday morning. He saw enough to warrant immediate action including stronger enforcement of rules, more school resource officers and campus monitors, and a focus on moving trouble-making students to alternative schools after classes resume Jan. 8.

"For me it's a question of greater good," Wilcox said in an interview Thursday. "I can't let a handful of kids at a high school ruin the experience for 2,000 other kids and 200 faculty members. If these kids have proven time and time again that they're unwilling to participate like the rest of society, I will give them an education ... but not there."

As he left campus Tuesday, Wilcox also phoned St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon to ask for their help. In addition, he plans to approach several ministers in St. Petersburg's black community to help recruit adult role models to walk the campus.

"It's a situation that we viewed as spiraling out of control," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, who praised Wilcox's actions.

The problems have included:

- Students freely violating the district's code of conduct, from wearing egregiously suggestive clothing to swearing at teachers to using cell phones and personal music players on campus.

- Students threatening teachers who ask them to follow the rules.

- Vandalism that has scarred parts of the gleaming new campus, reconstructed two years ago at a cost to taxpayers of about $58-million. Students have reportedly sprayed restroom walls with graffiti, urinated and defecated on floors, damaged water fixtures and removed toilet seats. Wilcox described the restrooms he saw as "horrific."

- A large food fight in the school's airy cafeteria. "The description I got from people is (students) were running from the cafeteria and that the food fight actually continued out into the commons area," Wilcox said.

- A spate of four disciplinary actions in recent weeks against teachers who had run-ins with students. While the district does not condone the teachers' actions, they are evidence of a tough climate, said Wilcox, who has visited the campus three times this semester.

"On one hand I really understand the frustration, having been (at Gibbs) and having asked a kid myself to take the headphones off and got that 'Whatever' kind of look," Wilcox said. "If you get it all day every day, you're frustrated I'm sure."

Some of the problems have involved racial issues. The teachers' letter to Wilcox complained of black students calling white teachers racists when the teachers asked them to follow the rules.

Moore, the teachers union director, said both black and white teachers were complaining about the climate.

One of the black teachers is a Gibbs graduate, now in her second year on the staff, who is frustrated and considering leaving the profession, Moore said.

Though Wilcox saw the situation as serious, he was upbeat.

"I would say that it's really regrettable that it got to the place where it is, but it's more than salvageable," he said. "It will be okay."

In a recorded message to the faculty Wednesday, Wilcox expressed support for the school's first-year principal, Antelia Campbell. He also spoke of re-establishing "a climate of civility on your campus" and protecting "this community's investment" in Gibbs.

"There was a lot of applause," said Alan K. Johnson, a 23-year teacher in the school's arts magnet program. With his small classes in an out-of-the-way part of campus, Johnson said he doesn't see many problems but hears about them from colleagues.

"My general perception is that people are relieved that the central administration is paying attention, and they're glad that (Campbell) is getting some help," Johnson said.

Johnson and Moore said Campbell's engaging, open style has been well-received by the teaching staff, a mix of veterans and 35 new hires. A school district employee since 1997, Campbell, 34, previously was an assistant principal at Largo High, Tarpon Springs High and Oak Grove Middle School.

Among the many actions Wilcox ordered is a review of staffing to ensure that Gibbs' assistant principals are not in their offices when students change classes. A stickler for neatness, he also is pressing the maintenance staff to do a better job of cleaning the campus.

Two high-ranking district officials - former principals Ed Baldwin and Alec Liem - have been temporarily dispatched to the campus to help with the changes. District crews will spend the winter break, which starts today, painting restrooms with graffiti-resistant paint.

Campbell said the district's support will help the school and allow the staff to "step it up a notch" in helping students who have troubled backgrounds.

The problems are nothing new for Gibbs, she said. "Kids are kids ... I think we just need to get a handle on it."

Though problems may have occurred in the past, they are colliding with a new push by Wilcox and the School Board to improve civility at all schools.

Kevin Pace, a junior, said student conduct hasn't changed much since he's been at Gibbs. But he said the respect that teachers show students has declined.

"It's not like the teachers curse the students out," Pace said. "They just get mouthy."

Many African-American students think some white teachers are racist, said senior Lionel Williams, who is black.

"Some of them are always messing with the black students when we're doing the same thing the white students are," he said.

But he said students also are disrespectful. Skipping class is widespread, and when students aren't in class, "they have lots of time on their hands," he said.

The problems come at an awkward time for the school, which has magnet programs for arts and business that are designed to attract families from outside the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding Gibbs. The choice application period for next school year starts next month.

Wilcox called the problems "just a blip in the history of Gibbs." Families should not be frightened away, he said.

"You can go to any one of my schools, particularly the high schools, and find warts," he said. "I hope that parents wouldn't let a few bad apples spoil something that's really incredible."

Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

Gibbs High School

Opened: 1927

Enrollment 2006-07: 2,300

School grade (state): C

Graduation rate: 59 percent

Points of pride: Long history, new campus, athletic program, gospel choir, two magnet programs - Pinellas County Center for the Arts and the Business Economics Technology Academy.

From the school district's history book: "Gibbs' greatest treasure is its heritage, and its story is the story of the black community from which it was raised."

[Last modified December 22, 2006, 05:48:55]

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