Teacher: Bullies are out of control

12/21/2010 10:53 AM

12/21/2010 2:33 PM

In late October, Joshua Poole, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Jeaga Middle School in West Palm Beach, was sitting in his math class when another student viciously attacked him.

The beating, which Poole said lasted about 15 minutes, was caught on camera and posted on YouTube.

Poole's parents said their son has been a bullying target at the school for more than a year and claim nothing has been done to stop it.

Since the Pooles on Nov. 29 publicly announced they are filing a lawsuit against the Palm Beach County School District, alleging that Jeaga school officials were negligent in supervising Poole's math class, several teachers at the school have come forward, saying that attacks such as the one Poole suffered are becoming disturbingly routine.

None of the teachers, however, wanted their names used for fear of reprisals or losing their jobs.

"The students are out of control," said one. "It's horrendous. The administration blames the teachers and say it's lack of classroom control, but you can only control so much."

Another said she witnesses fights almost daily.

"The decline in student behavior is epidemic in public schools," the teacher said.

Principal Kevin Gatlin acknowledged that the current school year has been more "challenging" because Jeaga has 1,300 students, about 100 over administrators' projections. But he denies Jeaga has a bullying and fighting problem.

"I don't think we have any more fights than they have on any other campus," said Gatlin, who is in his second year as Jeaga's principal.

According to the Palm Beach County School District, there were 58 reported fights at Jeaga last year, up from 30 for the 2008-09 school year. Bear Lakes Middle in West Palm Beach, by comparison, reported 71 fights this school year, while other middle schools such as H.L. Watkins in Palm Beach Gardens and Roosevelt Middle in West Palm Beach reported 24 and 46 fights, respectively.

Robert Stewart can relate to Poole's troubles at Jeaga. Stewart, now 17 and living in Mississippi, attended Jeaga for 2 1/2 years.

In 2007, three Jeaga students jumped him on the school bus. Stewart said he was punched in the back and head. He said the sterling silver chain that was given to him by his grandmother for his 14th birthday was stolen.

"This was nothing new," Stewart said. "It was an ongoing thing. I felt safer at home."

Stewart estimated he got into as many as 40 fights while he was at Jeaga and that he was suspended twice for defending himself.

Stewart's mother, Judith, thought about taking Stewart out of Jeaga and homeschooling him. Instead, in 2009, she moved her family to Mississippi.

Stewart said he's glad she did.

"The school here is peaceful," Stewart said. "Everyone keeps to themselves and I haven't been in a fight since I've been here."

Bullying and fighting, of course, aren't exclusive to Jeaga. Recent government statistics show that 32 percent of 12- to 18-year-old students say they have been bullied. Meanwhile, reported bullying incidents in Palm Beach County are on the rise.

The school district says 2,286 incidents occurred in the 2008-09 school year, up from 2,032 in 2007-08.

But many Jeaga teachers say that violent behavior is on the rise as well. One said in October, a student began throwing desks around a room because another student was looking at him.

"He also tried throwing my podium," the teacher said.

The teacher told the other kids to leave the room and stand in the hallway with their backs to the wall. She also buzzed the front office, but the teacher said it took nearly 20 minutes for one of the assistant principals to respond.

"They pick and choose whose class they come to," the teacher said. "They don't come for me because they think I buzz (the office) too much."

Gatlin denied that claim, saying school officials respond immediately.

"They know what my expectations are," he said. "But we do have some teachers who will lay on that button quite often."

Why are students acting so aggressively in school?

Jeaga teachers cite the poor neighborhoods many of the students come from.

"Many of these kids are from broken homes," one teacher said.

Another teacher said she has called parents about the behavior of her students only to be told in many cases, "I can't control him at home. What makes you think I can control him at school?"

As for the attack on Poole, his parents claim the math teacher, Donald Charbonneau, did nothing to stop the fight. The district, however, has said that Charbonneau pushed the classroom call button requesting assistance.

Since there is a pending lawsuit against the district as well as potential criminal charges against the student who allegedly attacked Poole, Jeaga school officials are unable to comment on the incident.

But Jeaga teachers say that Charbonneau, 71, did all he could under the circumstances.

"It's not his job to break up fights," one teacher said. "It's his job to teach remedial math. I'm not trained (nor) paid to intervene in fights. If I don't, I'm negligent. If I do, I'm abusive. There is no way to do the right thing."

Teachers say they're in a difficult position because they have no real means to remove disruptive, aggressive and even violent students from school and get them the support they need.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," said one teacher. "Everybody's disgusted."

To help combat the problem districtwide, Palm Beach County School Board member Debra Robinson at Wednesday's board meeting proposed establishing an electronic forum where students could anonymously report bullying incidents before they escalate.

Robinson said she wanted to create some sort of paper trail of incidents so that if a student gets in trouble for fighting and claims to be defending themselves from a bully, there would be a record of incidents to back up their story.

School district policy states that even if a student is defending himself by punching back, that student will be suspended. Both Poole and the other student were suspended for six days.

"If you get yourself involved in a fight, you're going to have to suffer the consequences," said Dave Benson, the county's assistant director for the Department of Safe Schools. "Defending yourself is trying to avoid being hit and blocking punches."

There are a few programs designed to help troubled students and decrease the number of fights at schools, including Project Mind. The program is in place at five middle schools - Jeaga, Bear Lakes, John F. Kennedy, Lake Worth and Roosevelt - and was created to reach at-risk kids through counseling before their behavior leads to a suspension.

About 100 students will be identified in each school, said Alison Adler, the district's chief of safety and learning.

"We're trying to help students who have multiple risk factors and determine where they are academically and emotionally," Adler said. "We want to look at programs that change behavior, not just give consequences."

Another program is Alternative to Out-of-School Suspensions, which gives suspended students an opportunity to make up their schoolwork and do FCAT prep work at an off-campus site. Students also work on character-building skills as well.

Still, Jeaga teachers remain concerned that their school has become a battle zone.

"Some of these kids do whatever they want," said one teacher. "These are children. It doesn't take much to instigate them."

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