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North of Tampa: Hormones, transition, peer pressure and more cause discipline problems

By AMBER MOBLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 17, 2007


Middle schools in north Hillsborough report about seven times more discipline problems than the area's elementary and high schools.

Straddling the divide between childhood and adolescence, and as likely to cross the proverbial line as back away from it, middle-schoolers are just that -- caught in the middle.

What's to blame for the huge surge in discipline problems? Hormones? Transition? Peer pressure?

All those and more, says Lewis Brinson, assistant superintendent for administration for Hillsborough County schools.

Confronting misbehavior across the board, and especially in areas such as bullying and fighting, should be a major goal of the school district, Brinson told Hillsborough principals at a recent meeting.

Consider some of the concerns raised by last year's discipline numbers for north Hillsborough middle schools:

  • Boys received more than three times as many referrals as girls.
  • Black students, especially boys, were far more likely to be written up than their white peers.
  • Bullying incidents were significantly low, with a majority of north Hillsborough schools saying they had no bullying incidents at all last year.

Reporting inconsistencies make it difficult to compare schools directly. What one principal calls a fight, for instance, may be classified as disruptive behavior at another school.

But this much is clear: At many schools, the problem is even worse than the numbers show.

That has to change, says Brinson, who says discipline can be just as important as a child's academic performance.

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

Sifting through issues

Middle school is definitely a challenging time for youngsters, says Pierce Middle School principal Victor Fernandez.

"They think they know everything, and that's why we have to be strong," he says.

For Fernandez and his staff, strength means clear connections.

"These kids come with packages of issues: broken homes, parents in prison or working two or three jobs, they could be living with grandparents," Fernandez says. "The main goal is to connect with the kids, find out why they're acting out."

Whenever a teacher decides to send a student to the office because of behavior problems, the school creates a referral. Some of these referrals become part of a report the district sends to the state.

Referrals, though, should not be a first option, says Davidsen Middle School principal Michael Miranda.

"Time-out is elementary," he says, "but we still use that a little where you send them next door and give them a little time to cool down. Moving them to a different seat, that's another intervention."

Beyond teachers, Davidsen students have three intervention specialists and three guidance counselors. Each middle school also has an assigned student resource officer or student resource deputy, a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy, Temple Terrace police officer or Tampa police officer.

Even with adults on hand and an issue-specific behavior plan in place at their schools, adolescents are at the age when "sometimes they're more reactive than proactive," says Benito Middle School principal Bobby Smith.

Worse than numbers

While a majority of discipline incidents are in the double digits across the board for middle schools, a majority of north Tampa schools -- elementary through high school -- report zero bullying incidents.

"That's just crazy," says Brendale Perkins, a two-time PTA president who pulled her son Justin out of one such school three years ago because of what she described as relentless bullying.

Perkins says her son, who is medically disabled, was shoved around by boys who took his lunch and his money. Unlike many middle-schoolers, Justin complained to a teacher. But things did not improve, and Justin became angry and violent at home.

Perkins took the matter up with the administrators. Eventually, she says, five boys were suspended. But after they returned to school, a teacher sent one to the restroom with Justin. Brendale says the youth shoved Justin into a stall and wouldn't let him leave.

Perkins immediately transferred Justin to a private school. Because of his medical problems, he is now homeschooled.

Told that the school now reports zero bullying, she said, "That's ridiculous. There are going to be conflicts there."

Law enforcement reports give a different, and sometimes more alarming, picture of student interaction at middle school.

According to Hillsborough Sheriff's Office reports, at least six students in separate incidents at five north Hillsborough middle schools cited bullying as a reason they brought knives on campus when they were caught with the weapons.

Buchanan, Davidsen, Hill and Webb each had one such report and Farnell had two incidents during the 2005-06 and the 2006-07 school years.

Code of silence

Part of the problem, administrators acknowledge, is that middle school students often react to bullying by fighting instead of telling.

Brinson wants to see schools become more proactive. If discipline issues drop across the board, he thinks academic performance will rise. But none of that can happen if students refuse to tell when they're bullied.

"One of the things we're going to have to do is train our teachers to look for it and break the code of silence," Brinson says.

Benito Middle reported only two bullying incidents last year, but Bobby Smith, the principal, knows it's much more. The school aims to fight bullying as well as bring it to the forefront.

Usually during the first semester, Benito holds a Bullying Awareness and Prevention week. The goal is to show students ways to prevent bullying and what to do when bullying occurs.

"A lot of times," Smith says, "if you nip the problem in the bud early, it most likely won't lead to a fight or the more severe harassment issues."

When reporting incidents of bullying to the school district, Adams Middle School was an exception. It reported 11 incidents of bullying last year, the most in the area.

Major disparities

As is true nationally, minority students -- black boys in particular -- get into the most trouble.

No other racial group gets into more trouble in Hillsborough County schools than black students. While they account for only 21 percent of the student population, they were involved in 44 percent of discipline incidents reported in Hillsborough last year.

The referrals usually fall under vaguely defined discipline categories such as disobedience or being inappropriate. In contrast, white students are more likely to get in trouble in categories that are more concrete, such as vandalism, profanity and skipping class.

Brinson's explanation?

"It is the tolerance level," he said. "It is the respect that has to be mutual. It's understanding cultural differences. It is using every bit of interventions before disconnecting the child and writing the referral. It also could be an indication that these kids respect the rules more."

"All I know is something's not working. And we have to find a way to fix it."

And across the board, boys are head and shoulders above the girls when causing trouble.

The reason for that is "very involved and complicated," says Miranda, the Davidsen principal.

"Boys are sometimes impulsive," Miranda says. "When someone calls them a name, they automatically want to get physical instead of talking it out. We have a mediation program but they usually don't take advantage of that."

Miranda strives for a diverse teaching staff at Davidsen - in race as well as gender -- to boost student-teacher relations and help resolve discipline issues.

"I've got about 95 teachers and I'd say, maybe 40 percent are male. I've got a good balance," he says. He hopes that it may help decrease discipline issues.

In the district, "You have a predominantly female staff and a system in place where as a student you can't do this, you can't do that and you have to sit in your seat for 50, now 60 minutes." Obedience can be a tall order for young boys and adolescents in general.

But these are the expectations: behave and learn. And those are expectations that must be made clear to students, Brinson said.

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

Editor Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Amber Mobley can be reached at or (813) 269-5311.

[Last modified August 17, 2007, 00:10:34]

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