St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Letter to the editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Brandon: Students on the brink of adolescence all too often at the center of schools' discipline woes

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET, Times Staff Writer
Published August 17, 2007


Teachers sent southeast Hillsborough public school students to the principal's office for discipline problems more than 70,000 times last year. Nearly 40 percent of those incidents involved middle school students, according to district data.

"Some people classify them as hormones with feet," assistant superintendent for administration Lewis Brinson said. "They're just constantly moving."

And they're heading for trouble far more frequently than their elementary school counterparts.

Compared with elementary schools, the number of discipline incidents per student was eight times higher in southeast Hillsborough middle schools.

The problem is simple, according to Brinson: "It's growing pains."

But the solution is complicated -- and it's something Hillsborough school administrators will focus on this year. Each school will use the data to create an action plan for dealing with discipline, Brinson said.

"Teach them how to behave just like you teach them how to read," he said. "We have to develop the whole child."

Data collected by the school district list a range of discipline referrals, from bad bus behavior to bullying to battery.

Law enforcement reports detail the more severe offenses: A student smoking a cigarette in the girls' bathroom, a boy carrying a box cutter in his front pocket, one student choking another outside the boys' locker room.

Schools record discipline issues differently, so comparing statistics between them is difficult. But a spike in behavior problems during the middle school years is clear.

That reflects national trends, said Julia Graber, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

"Aggressive behaviors tend to really jump between sixth and seventh grade, and then they sort of plateau once they hit the seventh grade. ... It's just a tough transition," she said.

Middle schools are often bigger than elementary schools, she said, and teachers expect more from students.

"We try to be very careful with the sixth-graders to bring them along," Burns Middle School principal Brenda Nolte said. "We are very clear and very specific with students about what our expectations are, what they can do to be successful and what happens if they don't do it."

Data from middle schools in southeast Hillsborough, and across the district, mirror other national trends.

Boys are sent to the principal's office more than twice as often as girls. Minority students - boys in particular - received more discipline referrals than white students.

Brinson said school officials have not identified what causes the discrepancies, but narrowing those gaps should be a top priority for Hillsborough schools this year.

"What I do know is that something is not working, and that we have to fix it," he said.

* * *

But Brinson noted that the numbers don't tell the whole story. Southeast Hillsborough middle schools reported only 105 instances of bullying last year. Brinson said the number is likely significantly higher.

"I have a concern about it being under-reported, because that means it's going undetected," he said. "We have to break the code of silence among our students."

Nolte, the principal at Burns Middle -- which listed only one bullying referral last year -- said teachers often handle bullying issues in their classrooms. And administrators may record a bullying incident, but categorize it differently.

At Rodgers Middle School, which listed no bullying referrals last year, administrators have planned a push to cut down on bullying this year, assistant principal Carlos Garcia said. But technology makes that a tough task.

"There's a lot of things that we need to address that didn't exist seven or eight years ago., YouTube," he said. "The ways kids can talk about others and do hurtful things to others have changed."

* * *

Examining the data, Brinson said, will help school officials develop ways to deal with discipline problems.

Discussing discipline with parents is a common approach. But Dennis Mayo, principal at Turkey Creek Middle School in Plant City, said he likes to take things a step further by inviting parents to attend classes.

"That often curbs the misbehavior of the student," he said. "In middle school, they certainly do not want their parents to come to school with them."

At Dowdell Middle Magnet School, staffers attended a summer workshop about connecting more with male students.

"Their bodies are going through so many changes at this stage of their lives," said Rose Tozzi, an educational career specialist at the school. "And to be able to connect with them, we have to know those changes that they're going through."

While girls often open up in an office setting about their problems, Tozzi has developed a different technique for dealing with boys who are getting in trouble. She pulls them out of class and takes them on a walk around the school.

"Once you get them walking and talking, they seem to open up," she said.

Connecting more with students is a critical step in dealing with discipline problems, Brinson said. So is realizing that discipline data can be just as important as FCAT scores.

"We have to be able to save and rehabilitate our children," he said. "If not, the next institutional system they enter may be prison."

Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Amber Mobley and Mike Brassfield contributed to this story. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at or (813) 661-2454.

Caught misbehaving: Students involved in discipline incidents (2006-07)

The chart below shows the number of times students were involved in several types of discipline incidents reported last school year. The figures include repeat offenders, so some students may have been counted more than once. School officials caution against making school-to-school comparisons, as reporting varies by school.

Schools Fall Enrollment Bullying Bus - Inapprop. Behavior Disobedience Drug Possession Fighting Skipping Class

Burnett 1,027 19 57 117 2 57 62
Burns 1,469 1 75 136 7 36 16
Dowdell 812 0 113 186 3 103 114
Eisenhower 1,568 0 281 257 19 43 268
Giunta 1,156 2 24 112 2 5 29
Jennings 1,015 7 166 233 11 127 117
Mann 884 0 11 104 1 2 6
Marshall 1,005 4 106 247 3 52 56
McLane 1,086 1 177 454 7 80 208
Mulrennan 1,363 13 35 128 6 83 56
Progress Village 924 3 183 117 0 18 43
Randall 1,491 3 76 251 1 4 9
Rodgers 1,139 0 110 365 11 98 96
Shields 1,121 34 152 282 10 32 89
Tomlin 1,539 0 98 51 0 3 49
Turkey Creek 1,097 18 73 109 7 36 61

Armwood 1,986 0 22 510 11 56 370
Bloomingdale 2,243 0 22 474 8 43 224
Brandon 2,049 0 14 294 12 30 272
Durant 2,766 0 46 559 26 28 592
East Bay 1,891 0 15 262 19 51 258
Lennard 718 0 13 246 18 29 55
Newsome 2,093 1 21 172 10 11 122
Plant City 2,766 2 69 847 10 81 748
Riverview 2,300 0 16 209 9 34 155
Spoto 1,072 0 6 192 2 30 125
Tampa Bay Tech 1,918 1 72 474 2 65 342
Source: Hillsborough school district

[Last modified August 16, 2007, 23:54:22]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters