Shocking Violence in Florida’s Segregated Elementary Schools

Monday, August 24, 2015
Pinellas Schools Superintendent Mike Grego

When a school district deliberately concentrated its neediest, most at-risk students in a few schools in the poorest part of town, the schools turned into a breeding ground for violence.

 

The Pinellas County School Board in Florida voted in 2007 to end desegregation efforts and return children to neighborhood schools. For those living in the southernmost part of St. Petersburg, that meant the county’s neediest children would be concentrated in five elementary schools. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, including analysis of disciplinary records and police reports, showed that resulted in those schools becoming dangerous for students and teachers.

 

Before the vote, the board’s only black member alerted her colleagues to the need for more counselors and support staff at those schools. “We are getting ready to dump some problems into south county,” Mary Brown said. “We need more counselors. We’re going to need more social workers, more psychologists. Where’s the funding going to come from?”

 

The board publicly said it would provide those resources, but no additional help was given the five schools. As often happens, school board members felt free to ignore problems in schools with poorer students in favor of concentrating on middle- and upper-class schools where the parents are more likely to complain—and vote. In this case, some of the five schools ended up with fewer counselors than other schools with lower numbers of at-risk students.

 

As a result, violence skyrocketed at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools, averaging eight incidents a day for the five years starting in 2010. In 2014 there were more violent incidents at those five schools than there were at the county’s 17 high schools, the Times found. Teachers got little or no training on how to deal with violent students and their calls for help to school authorities during incidents of violence were often ignored.

 

Some of the incidents are enough to make your hair stand on end:

 

--A Campbell Park second-grader threatened to kill and rape two girls while brandishing a kitchen knife he brought to school in his backpack.

--A 9-year-old at Fairmount Park hit a pair of kindergartners in the head with a souvenir baseball bat.           

--A group of kindergartners at Maximo pinned a classmate down on the playground, pulled off her pants and fondled her.

--Two Fairmount Park teachers were injured in separate incidents on one day in 2009. The first teacher, a 58-year-old woman, was slammed into a door. The second was beaten in the ankle with a heavy wooden doorstop.

 

Pinellas Schools Superintendent Mike Grego, who was hired in 2012, says the district is working to improve the problem. “There’s been no lack of urgency in terms of the investment and the time and the staff development,” Grego told the Times. “It is on our agenda on a regular basis.”

 

A former teacher at three of the schools disagreed with the assertion that school administrators were addressing the problem. “They don’t have to deal with these low-income black kids coming into their schools, bullying their kids,” Lovell Blue, who is black and who has taught at Melrose, Lakewood and Campbell Park, said. “It’s not a problem for them anymore. They’re satisfied with how it is.”

 

Even when the school board addresses the problem, the poorer schools are shortchanged. Pinellas classrooms are now getting panic buttons teachers can press in case of an emergency. Of course, the schools in better neighborhoods are getting them first. The five schools in south St. Petersburg should have them within five years, the district claims.

-Steve Straehley

 

To Learn More:

Lessons in Fear (by Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia, Tampa Bay Times)

The Problem We All Live With (by Nikole Hannah-Jones, This American Life) (podcast)

 

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