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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.
TAMPA - Eric Dungy's admission to Plant High School, widely considered a crown jewel among local public schools, would seem to make him the envy of many.
One hundred forty-eight students requested special assignment to enroll at Plant this school year. Special assignment is the only option allowing students like Dungy, the son of Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, to enroll in crowded schools such as Plant outside their neighborhood boundaries.
But it is hard to get. District policies now restrict the option to hardship cases. Even a family as high-profile as the Dungys may not be immune from the kind of difficult circumstances that could apply.
At South Tampa's Plant High, ranked among the nation's top 100 schools by Newsweek magazine, almost three-fifths of requests for special assignment this school year were denied. Dungy, son of the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, enrolled at Plant last week.
Eric Dungy, a sophomore and football player, said Tuesday he is at Plant on special assignment, but he didn't know what reason helped secure his slot.
"My mom loved the academics at Plant - that was the first thing that got to her," he said. "We also found out they had a pretty good football team, too."
The district's school choice application cites examples of reasons justifying a special assignment, now called "choice hardship." They include court orders, "extreme or profound hardship," medical hardship and military transitioning. Children of school employees at the site also are eligible.
Bill Person, who oversees student placement for Hillsborough schools, said the reasons can include assaults, domestic issues, divorces and medical problems.
"It's got to be something we feel is a fairly serious situation that would warrant putting a child into an overcrowded school," Person said.
Principals may become aware of the hardship and call it to the attention of district administrators, Person said, but the district makes the final decision.
The Dungy home in Avila would be zoned for Gaither High School. Eric's older brother James played for Gaither in 2003-04, his junior season, before moving to Indianapolis with his father his senior year. Three days before Christmas 2005, James Dungy committed suicide in his Tampa apartment.
Lauren and Tony Dungy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
"We never really talked about other (schools)," Eric Dungy said. "My mom told my dad (about Plant), and then they came to me. It was pretty much history."
Special assignment long has offered families in Hillsborough access to non-neighborhood schools without having to move. In recent years, school officials have tried to rein in the practice, restricting it while steering families to other school choice options.
But Plant, like many other popular campuses, is crowded and not available for regular choice assignment. This year, Hillsborough has more than 8,600 students using special assignments to attend non-neighborhood schools. At Plant, 153 students are attending on special assignment.
Plant wasn't the most popular high school for special assignments. That distinction went to Gaither, the school in Dungy's home neighborhood, which approved 49 kids and denied 101.
Many parents have to go about enrolling their students the traditional way by moving to the neighborhood. Local Realtors say families familiar with the area know to ask for the Plant district.
"They're pretty specific about what school district they want to be in - and that's Plant," said Roger Woodward, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in South Tampa. "For a public school, Plant is No. 1."
Plant's honor roll is long. The A-rated school has made Newsweek's list of the top schools nationally for three consecutive years. It has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
The football team won a state championship last year, undoubtedly a highlight for the son of one of the National Football League's most celebrated coaches. Eric Dungy, the leading receiver at Park Tudor High in Indianapolis last season, began offseason workouts with the Panthers on Monday. He will get the opportunity to run routes for one of the nation's top prep quarterbacks, junior Aaron Murray, next fall.
Times staff writer Elisabeth Dyer contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.