LARGO — A new agreement between Pinellas County schools and police agencies has deflated student arrests numbers, but that doesn’t mean students are getting away with bad behavior, Superintendent Michael Grego said.
Piggy-backing on a new memorandum of understanding that discourages officers from arresting students unless absolutely necessary is a plan to update the district’s bullying response program.
This year, the school district is up for an evaluation by the Florida Department of Education to make sure each school is complying with antibullying laws. State officials will make site visits to local schools May 8 and 9, but the school district is “more than ready,” said bullying prevention specialist Joan Reubens.
School employees will take refresher courses during the summer on how to investigate and identify bullying, as well as how to help students who are “repeatedly victimized,” Reubens said. Currently, 35 schools are using the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a research-based, two-day training on intervention on schoolwide, classroom, community and individual levels. More will go through the training in June. Reubens also has written a new course with materials from the state titled, “Creating a Supportive Classroom and School Bus Culture,” that schools will go through in the summer, she said.
As of this past week, the school district received 2,179 bullying reports for the school year, 1,723 of which were unsubstantiated and 456 substantiated. Even if a report doesn’t meet the state definition of bullying, it shouldn’t “fall through the cracks,” Executive Director of Student Services Donna Sicilian said.
“Each report needs to be followed up and completed but not forgotten,” Sicilian said. “We all know that perception is really what we’re dealing with, so if a kid or parent feels that bullying is occurring, even if it may just be a simple conflict, we still will put a safety plan in place.”
Currently, all reports of bullying, whether submitted through the Bullying Report Form on the district’s website or told to a teacher by a student or parent, are entered into a reporting system where they are archived and emailed to a school administer to investigate.
However, Sicilian said she would like school board members to consider purchasing a new reporting system that doesn’t rely on a single email, which could be sent to the wrong mailbox or overlooked. Unless there’s a special circumstance, school officials have 10 days to investigate each bullying claim, and all reports must be submitted to the state each year, Reubens said.
The school district’s arrest reports should be fewer this year because of the new memorandum on student misconduct.
In month-to-month comparisons, the school district’s student arrest numbers in January were down 52 percent from last January, 27 percent from last February, and 11 percent from last March. In those three months, there were 289 arrests in 2013 and 194 this year, a 67 percent reduction. Those numbers are a stark contrast to the 846 Pinellas students arrested in 2011-12, which was 294 more than in much larger Miami-Dade, according to state reports.
In four months, all seven police agencies that have contact with Pinellas students have signed the memorandum, which will go before local NAACP chapters and the Faith and Action for Strength Together group April 22, said Rick Stelljes, chief of Pinellas County Schools Police Department.
“We are making great progress in this area by analyzing situations and working together with the community, but still maintaining tremendous order and safety,” Grego said. “That’s something we’re not compromising.”