'Sorry' surprises School Board

Published January 29, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - People packed the Pasco County School Board meeting room.

Two dozen teachers, families in tow, came to get honored. At least as many Hudson residents planned to angrily denounce the board's efforts to put a school in their back yard.

Then there were two teenage boys, clad in jeans and T-shirts, sitting nervously in the front row. The St. Petersburg Times is withholding their names because of their ages.

They hadn't come to oppose a school site or, for that matter, to talk about anything on the board's plate. Rather, they came to apologize.

"I'm sorry for bringing drugs to school," one teen said quietly. "I know it was stupid. I don't know what I was thinking when I did it."

Then he sat down.

Board members didn't respond, except to say thanks. They're still not quite sure how to deal with this recent and unusual phenomenon of students showing up before them to seek forgiveness for past misdeeds.

"I'm getting ready to do something about that," said Lizette Alexander, the school district's student services director, referring to the need to establish some guidelines for these appearances. "It just started happening."

The impetus is Judge Walter Schafer, who has been on the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit bench a year and just took over juvenile cases for the county's west side. He makes the apologies - usually one of the hardest things to wrest from a teenager - part of the teens' probation.

And, court spokesman Ron Stuart said, Schafer has gone so far as to tell the youths that if they commit the same crime against a school again, or if they violate their probation, he will have them appear before an assembly of the entire student body. Not going to happen, Alexander said.

Peer pressure, it seems, is an effective deterrent, Stuart said.

"Everybody wants to give these kids a chance to stay out of jail. This gets the point across with things they don't want to do," he said.

School officials are still taken aback. They simply aren't accustomed to identifying students whom they have disciplined, much less have them come before a public forum and identify themselves.

It doesn't happen in surrounding school districts. So there's little guidance out there as to what to do.

Since it started happening, the School Board has agreed to write letters that the students can take back to the judge, who wouldn't comment on the matter because the cases were ongoing. What's next is anyone's guess.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino has at least one recommendation, though, after watching the teens speak: If you're coming to the board to apologize, you ought to at least remove your hat.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. His e-mail address is solochek@sptimes.com.