Fights, violence plague some schools

School districts insist new programs are reducing altercations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a video posted on a YouTube page titled "Campbellfights," a whistle can be heard blowing in the background as two adolescent boys wrestle each other to the ground.  A large group of children surround the fight, some capturing the action with cell phone cameras.

In another video, two girls push, slap and punch each other as the person recording the fight seems to celebrate the confrontation.

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Both of the videos, which were posted in 2014, appear to have been recorded on the campus of Campbell Middle School, a school where administrators said they have been aggressively trying to address a history of behavioral and academic challenges.

Fight and other types of violence occur at most public schools, state records show.  When children are brought together, particularly those in middle school, educators expect some physical altercations.

But according to the most recent data provided by the Florida Department of Education, some schools report a significantly higher number of fights.  Those trends exist even when the schools' enrollment numbers are taken into account.

During the 2014-2015 school year, Campbell Middle School reported 116 fights, an average of more than one altercation every other school day.  Only two other middle schools located near Jacksonville reported a higher number of fights.  At least 23 of those fights prompted administrators to contact law enforcement, according to state records.

Campbell had an enrollment of 850 students that year, records show.

Campbell also reported 11 cases of battery, each of which resulted in injuries.  The Florida Department of Education defines battery as an attack serious enough to warrant consulting law enforcement.  It is typically carried out against a person who is not fighting back.

Other Central Florida schools also experienced a high number of violent incidents. 

At Meadowbrook Middle School in Orange County, 102 fights were reported in 2014-2015, along with seven battery cases. 

Meadowbrook Middle School, which had a student population of 932 that year, also noted two "physical attacks”.  Those incidents might include a student throwing an object and hitting someone hard enough to cause injury, according to state reporting guidelines.

Eighteen people were injured as a result of those incidents at Meadowbrook, state records showed.  The reports do not specify whether children or adults sustained those injuries.

Although larger schools would presumably be more likely to have a larger number of fights, records demonstrate that is not always the case.

West Orange High School in Winter Garden is Florida's third-largest school, with an enrollment of 3835 in the 2014-2015 school year.  Yet the school reported only 30 fights that resulted in injury or required physical restraint.

The Florida Department of Education requires all public schools to report statistics about fights, drugs, weapons and other incidents to the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) database. That information is made available to the public about two years later.  Statistics from 2015-2016 are expected to be released around February.

"We do take a look at that data every year," said Nancy Wait, Community Information director at Volusia County Schools.  "(As a result) we've got several programs and partnerships in place, and we do think they are making an impact, particularly at Campbell Middle School."

Reasons for high fight numbers unclear

Although most of the schools that lead the state in fights have also received D and F's under Florida's school grading system and have high percentages of children from low-income families, Orange County school administrators said there is no evidence that economic and academic challenges lead to higher numbers of fights.

Instead, some believe the problem begins at home.

"It's commonly known a lot of these children have no family framework of support," said Orlando attorney Frank Kruppenbacher.  "These teachers and administrators are doing everything they can, not only to educate students, but also fill the roles not being filled by families."

Kruppenbacher formerly represented Orange County Public Schools and is now in private practice at the Morgan and Morgan law firm. In both roles, he said he has noticed a troubling number of students who lack respect for themselves or others.

"This is an epidemic," said Kruppenbacher.   "This goes across all economic levels.  Nobody is teaching it to them.  They just don't absorb it."

The attorney believes Florida educators need to create a statewide program targeting elementary students that reinforces basic moral values.

"I think the emphasis on standardized testing and the academics has really taken focus off the fundamentals of civility, respect and responsibility," he said.  "Teach these kids every day to not do drugs, respect one another, and that words matter.  Do it every day of their lives in those classrooms to the point where they may get sick of hearing it, but they are at least going to pause because it is in their minds."

School district programs address violence

"Once we see a trend occurring at a school, we try to come to a conclusion as to why," said Orange County Public Schools media relations director Kathy Marsh.  "Do we need to change the entire culture of the school?  Is it a few students that consistently get into fights?"

Around the time fight data from the 2014-2015 school year was being compiled, Orange County Public Schools began using a nationwide program called Restorative Justice. In addition to administering traditional discipline, the program's goal is to rebuild damaged relationships while also identifying forms of restitution.

"Let's bring you and the victim together, with the consent of the parents of course, and let's discuss this," said Marsh.  "Why did you do it?  How do you think it made the victim feel?  And more importantly, what is it you can do to rectify the harm you've caused?"

Another relatively new initiative lauded by OCPS is the Upstander program, which encourages middle school students to "be an upstander, not a bystander."OCPS is the Upstander program, which encourages middle school students to "be an upstander, not a bystander."

The program includes a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland.

"(The instructor) teaches them what the victims of the Holocaust went through, and how if someone would have stood up for them instead of stood by, perhaps something may not have occurred as awful as it did."

OCPS has also begun hosting free Parent Academies.  During the all-day sessions, psychologists and other education experts offer suggestions on how adults can address inappropriate behavior, poor decision-making, and remaining involved in their children's education despite being a working parent.

"We know connected parents make for a better school," said Marsh.

In Volusia County, school administrators said they are finding success with a national program called Check & Connect that matches at-risk students with mentors. (http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/)

"That program is having a significant impact at Campbell Middle School specifically," said Wait.

The state requires all schools to conduct climate surveys in which parents, students and staff share suggestions on how to improve the campus environment.  In the past those surveys were reviewed when classes resumed in August.  But now Volusia County Schools have begun considering those recommendations months earlier.

"A lot of our schools have addressed the behavioral issues during the summer session, so when school starts they hit the ground running," said Wait.

This fall, a new principal at Campbell Middle School is working to improve academic and behavioral issues, said district officials.  Administrators, there took steps to ensure teachers were ready for the challenge.

"We want to make sure we have the best teachers there for these students, so we re-interviewed all the teachers to make sure that's where they wanted to be," said Wait.

Volusia County administrators suggest some campus fights involve older, high school-aged students who were retained in middle school for academic reasons. 

The district credits a new elective called "Jumpstart Academy," which gives those students personalized attention to help them advance to high school.

The district also believes student behavior is improving at Campbell Middle as a result of a grant putting Daytona Beach police officers on all city campuses that previously did not have school resource officers.   Besides providing additional supervision, administrators said the police presence has helped students build positive relationships with law enforcement.

“That is making an impact on Campbell and other schools as well,” Wait said.

School districts expect lower fight numbers

Orange and Volusia County school officials point out the state's most recent statistics detailing fights and other school violence are nearly two years old and may not accurately represent the current environment.

"The numbers have lowered (since 2014-2015)," said Wait, indicating only 11 fights have been reported at Campbell Middle School in the first quarter of the current school year.  "The trend is a lot better."

Orange County Public Schools officials are also hopeful their new initiatives to address behavioral problems will be seen in lower numbers of fights reported to the state.

"We are seeing wonderful results," said Marsh.  "Wonderful results."

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