A startling 41 percent jump in reports on fighting resulted in a state-high 188 fighting reports at Cutler Bay Academy of Advanced Studies for the 2013-14 school year, according to the Florida Department of Education.
This news comes as a shock to town Mayor Peggy Bell, who said so in an open letter on May 7.
“The town was not aware that our middle school was experiencing such a problem with fighting, that it was ranked No. 1 in violence out of the 4,200 public schools in the state of Florida,” Bell wrote.
While known as Cutler Ridge Middle School, the school had 111 fighting reports during the 2012-13 school year.
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But as Miami-Dade County Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego points out, those statistics could be misleading.
During a “forensic analysis” of the data, the school system concluded that seven of the 188 fighting reports required police involvement and 181 were considered minor, meaning that they didn’t “necessarily” involve any physical altercation or contact made. The school system is doing the review for all of its schools because of the “coding issue.”
“It might have been a verbal dispute,” Gonzalez-Diego said. “It could have been someone instigating a fight, name-calling, something that happened outside of the school or on the weekend, but if we felt that if it could be brought back in the school and there could be issues when the kids got back into school, we would document it because we document everything.”
Gonzalez-Diego added that when an incident occurs, it is recorded for each individual involved, meaning the 181 records of fighting were not all separate incidents.
“So 188 fights is not really representative of what is happening at the school from the data analysis that we have been able to find,” Gonzalez-Diego said. “Especially when you think of a minor incident that could be play-fighting, it could be wrestling, anything that is disruptive to the classroom environment. That’s what we would consider a fight because we document it like that. The problem becomes that we have the serious ones and the minor ones. We have everything put together and how the state takes the data is they take it into one big basket and put it all under fights.”
The school received a grade D from the Florida Department of Education in 2013 and 2014. In addition to fighting, the school reported five batteries, six thefts, five tobacco, two drug-related and two sexual harassments.
“That’s not really an accurate reflection of what is happening at the schools,” said Barbara Mendizabal, region superintendent for the south region office. “You have to go by the percentage and not by the numbers. We were concerned, this report gives us an opportunity to do a forensic analysis on the coding system, because every school district in the state has a different code of student conduct.”
Principal Paul Pfeiffer, hired in Dec. 2013, said he believes the school does not have a “significant problem” with fighting. After being hired, he told students he wanted to “ensure a safe and secure environment for all.”
“On the contrary,” Pfeiffer said. “I think we are moving in a positive direction. We have put systems in place, which have greatly reduced the number of incidents that have taken place at Cutler Bay Middle School.”
About 1,180 students attend the school at 19400 Gulfstream Rd., which has reported 74 minor fights and no serious fights this year. The school provides counselors, mentoring programs, parent workshops, and positive behavior support, among other programs.
“We are not over-reporting, but we have to make sure that every incident gets put in the record for the child,” Mendizabal said. “We would also have to work with the state and other districts to figure out how we can all come to a point where we would be more uniform.”
Bell wrote that the council has been receiving updates from the Pfeiffer and representatives from the office of the superintendent at town council meetings, but it was not revealed that the school had “a serious problem with violence.”
“As your mayor, I am urging you to trust in your Council as we are looking at any and every solution to extinguish this issue,” Bell wrote. “I have personally contacted our school board representative, Dr, Lawrence Feldman, and have spoken with Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho.”
Bell wrote that zero tolerance for fighting should result in expulsion, rather than “a 10 day holiday.”
“The Superintendent has once again informed me that the figures provided in the media are three years old and the incidents have improved 18 percent since last year,” Bell wrote. “According to the District, it has invested approximately $250,000 into programs and personnel in an effort to address these problems.”
Gonzalez-Diego said the data gives the school system an opportunity.
“We can’t just blame it on coding issues and all that because ultimately, the most paramount thing in the school district is providing a school that is a safe learning environment for all of our students,” Gonzalez-Diego said. “So we are looking at the data but we are not going to stop with the programs we are providing in the different schools. We are going to continue providing those and going to enhance them wherever we feel that we need to. This just gives us an opportunity to further look at what we have in our schools and make sure that it is safe for all of our students.”
Mendizabal said Carvahlo has since spoken to Bell and “is more than willing to work with the (town).”
“For the last year we have placed a lot of resources into this school,” Mendizabal said. “From all of this, it has given us a great opportunity to even strengthen further the great relationship we have with them. As a school district we have invested a lot of money in the school. We will continue to do so.”