Two Howard Middle School teachers buttonhole Principal Paul Flores in the hallway outside his office. Earlier this day a pocket knife dropped out of a student's knapsack. A teacher confiscated it.
"How delightful," the 34-year-old principal says wearily. "Is he a Boy Scout?"
He's a good kid, the teachers say. Not a Boy Scout, but hardly a troublemaker. He told them the knife was left in the backpack accidentally and that he never meant to bring it to school. They believe him.
Flores weighs his options. The school's student code of conduct calls for a 10-day suspension with recommendation for expulsion for "use or possession" of any weapon. That's for a first offense. The boy's class is scheduled for a field trip the following week. Flores decides it'd be a shame if he missed it. The code gets brushed aside.
"At minimum, I'll have to contact his parents," he concludes.
Flores has seen dozens of such cases each month since he became principal of Howard Middle School 18 months ago. His role as a scholastic Judge Judy is just a small part of being a principal.
But criticism about his discipline policy has cost Flores his job. He resigned his position, effective the last day of school, on April 29, the day before the above exchange occurred. Next year he will serve as an assistant principal at Colonial High School.
Flores says he hopes his resignation will heal the rifts between parents and among staff members that have opened since his arrival. He speaks cautiously about the discipline issue, and refuses to delve into specific instances in which his critics say he failed. "I just want to have a smooth transition" to the next principal, Flores says. "It's important to me."
But the knife incident illustrates the sharp edge between innocence and felony drawn by the law, and the fuzzy reality of everyday school violence. Moreover, the nature and number of crimes on school property serve as a mirror not only of an administrator's effectiveness but also of student safety.
School crime statistics -- compiled by the state Department of Education and posted on the Internet -- drive a school's reputation and the job performance evaluation of its principal. They are part of the complex matrix of factors that determine property values in an area. And as Gov. Jeb Bush's controversial voucher program cranks up, statistics on test scores and safety will literally mean the difference between survival and death for some public schools.
But the crime statistics are dubious. And discretion exercised by principals is only part of the problem.
In the 1996-97 school year, Orange County Schools reported 212 "incidents of crime and violence" at Howard; the state reported 188, or 24 fewer. Last year, the county reported 282 incidents; the state reported 277, or five fewer.
At the same time, for the 1998 calendar year, Orlando Police tally just 87 reports of crime or suspected crime at Howard.
Even more confusing, however, is the number of incidents relayed to Howard's cop-in-residence. For during the school year when the state reported 277 incidents, the resident officer received proper formal notification from Flores of only seven, according to statistics obtained from Orlando Police.
Within those conflicting numbers are a lot of pointed fingers.
A group of Howard Middle School parents say the flaky statistics are just one indication of a system that has dangerously broken down. They say Flores systematically discouraged crime reporting by students and staff in an effort to keep his statistics low. And some say what happened at Howard could happen anywhere a principal is unprepared or unwilling to lay down the law.
Among Flores' mistakes, according to interviews and Orlando Police records:
Flores and another administrator gave the third degree to two students who reported drug use and sales by classmates -- while refraining from disciplining the drug users.
As a racially charged fight among a group of students loomed in January, Flores warned the resident cop, known as a School Resource Officer (SRO), and then abandoned his post to attend a class at the University of Central Florida.
Flores either discarded or lost a marijuana cigar that a physical-education teacher found in the possession of two students.
Flores failed to report criminal incidents to Howard's SRO.
For the past several months the militant parents have banded together to research the issue and demand that Orange County Schools officials correct the problem. The district has since dispatched a team to do just that, says schools spokesman Joe Mittiga. Concerned parents met on April 22 to formalize their complaints; the next step in the process is a meeting May 6. "It's not an investigation," Mittiga says. "It's a problem-solving exercise."
Parents say the steps the school board takes at Howard will serve as a bellwether of the board's commitment to student safety.
This is not the first time school crime reporting has been called into question. A state legislative committee was slated to investigate the accuracy of school crime reports and propose remedial legislation this session, but the effort was abandoned. Spokesmen for the state Department of Education say their office merely reports the numbers received from the counties, and does not check them for accuracy.
Policies in place are meant to avoid such discrepancies.
For example, Howard's student code -- which is based upon and supplements the Code of Student Conduct for all of Orange County Schools -- mandates a police report for any weapons incident.
In the case of the discovered pocket knife, "we would probably file charges," says Lt. Pam Miller of the Orlando Police Department. "That would be a felony -- bringing a weapon to school." That means a juvenile record and possibly an adult felony record if the boy and his parents don't undertake the expensive and time-consuming process of getting the record expunged, she says. If the wheels of justice turn now as they must, this pocketknife-toting near-Boy Scout may never be allowed to own a firearm, or vote. To say nothing of his job prospects.
Miller oversees the cadre of SROs assigned to the city's public middle and high schools. (Those assigned to elementary schools visit just one day a week to teach.) SROs report up the chain of police command and not to school authorities. School administrators are supposed to inform them of all crimes and other potential trouble. Like any other police, SROs are sworn to uphold the law without fear or favor.
But, like any cop, the SRO has some discretion. "I'll work with the school if they think it's not so serious," says Eric Goebelbecker, Howard's SRO. If Goebelbecker were to decide the knife-toting boy was telling the truth and had no criminal intent, he may forego filing charges.
"But he still must report it," Lt. Miller says.
In a place of honor in the principal's office hangs a framed 8-by-10 photograph of Michael Jordan in mid-flight. Under it, also in the frame, is a letter signed by a Jordan functionary, expressing regrets that the basketball great cannot attend the 1996 opening of the school's new gymnasium.
Greatness does not come easily to Howard Middle School.
With about 1,000 children in grades six through eight, Howard is on the small side among Orange County middle schools. The 82,000-square-foot main building, dedicated in 1926, is not swamped by portable classrooms or blighted slums; the campus straddles East Robinson Street in an up-and-coming residential section of downtown, just a block from Lake Eola.
As with any inner-city school, Howard's student body is a mix of Anglo, Hispanic, African-American and Asian. Flores stresses his and the school's effort to celebrate diversity while maintaining unity with colorful murals, posters and constant reminders of the students' rich cultural heritage.
According to state Department of Education statistics, during the 1996-97 school year, 68.9 percent of Howard's students received free or reduced-price lunches, 21 percent had disabilities, 8.9 percent spoke limited English, and 4.3 percent were "gifted," placing the school below average by comparison to all other Florida middle schools. Per-student expenses were about $4,300 -- near the state average.
Its crime rate was comfortably on the low end of the scale in Orange County.
"Now it's up 105 percent," says Casey Justice, whose daughter attended Howard last year. "One kid got the crap beat out of him by two kids -- in February -- and it wasn't reported to the SRO until this week."
The school's respected former SRO, Amy Bretches-Farina, echoed the concerns about Flores raised by the parents and her supervisor, but said she was concerned that news about the problems at Howard would reflect badly on the students. "I just don't want them hurt in any way," she said.
Goebelbecker, who took over from Farina in January, says the problem continues. "I'm not told everything," he says. "I guess it's just `Flores` thinks some things aren't that serious." (The four other district middle schools within the city all reported incident numbers lower than Howard's, although it is unclear whether their reporting habits are better than Howard's.)
Knowledge is power, Goebelbecker explains, and so he spends most of his time getting to know as many of the students as he can. At this volatile age, when the smallest insult can turn into a blood feud, the school's police officer has to know in intimate detail who is mad at whom, and over what. He also has to know which kids have influence over the others; which kids are instigators; which ones are bold; which are afraid.
"Any problem we know about ahead of time, I have a chance to try and solve it before it gets out of hand," says Goebelbecker.
Take, for example, the big fight.
"It ended up 200 kids," Justice says. "From the school to `the` bus stop to Lake Eola. It was a big melee. The principal knew it was going down, and `instead` went to class at UCF."
Here's what happened:
In early January, just as Goebelbecker was settling into his new job, two groups of kids launched into a feud that lasted more than a week. A police report says it began after one student threw a crayon at another. The two broke into a fight on Jan. 5, a Tuesday, and each had two friends join in on their side. One student threatened to shoot the others, but no gun was seen.
On Wednesday, three of the kids on one side, plus one of their friends, were attacked by at least 15 people on their way home from school. The students said their attackers were mostly older than middle-school-age. The boys ran, but one was caught and fought between five and eight individuals.
On Thursday Flores called Orlando Police to report a possible shooting to occur that afternoon. Officer Stanley Klem III was dispatched to interview the players. No weapons were found. But all the kids involved on one side of the altercation were absent from school that day. Klem called the gang unit and former Howard SRO Farina.
"When school let out approximately 250 students started to walk to the bus station as a group," Klem's report says. "Many of the students in this large group were extremely rowdy and chanting something. Officers were dispersed at various points around Lake Eola, which helped control the crowd." But 10 to 15 boys and men were waiting for their opponents by the bridge at Lake Eola; when police approached them, "they were extremely uncooperative and refused to identify themselves," Klem's report says. "That group of individuals then followed the three students from Howard who were still amongst 150 students on their way to the bus station."
With police following, the two groups eventually separated.
It was a time of high tension. A time for strong leadership.
"The principal, I believe, was not available," says Lt. Miller of the incident. "Good leadership -- my opinion, Pam Miller's opinion -- good leadership means you stand at the front of the pack, not yell from the rear."
Goebelbecker says in many cases he has been able to get students into his office to work out their differences without fighting, and in the few incidents where they went at it anyway, he was in a position to stop it quickly. But in some cases, trouble has flared and the school administrators have not told him. There was a rash of petty thefts, for example: An assistant principal had her purse ransacked, and a teacher who suffered a similar incident didn't tell Goebelbecker. "I need to know if this is happening," Goebelbecker says. "Two or three incidents might be minor, but 10 is much more serious."
There are disagreements, too, about the appropriate punishment when a student commits a crime. "Sometimes I turn over a kid to the school for discipline and they don't do anything," he says.
And sometimes innocent kids feel persecuted.
In March 1998, "I found out there was an ongoing drug problem at the school," says Ashley Justice, Casey's daughter, who is now a high-school freshman. She says she reported it to Farina, who told Flores, whereupon Flores and an assistant principal "took me into a room and made me dump all my stuff in the backpack, and called me a drug dealer."
Ashley Justice says she and a friend, who also gave information to the police, were both told they were under suspicion in the drug case. "I thought they were crazy," Justice says. "This went on for 30 minutes. They never called my mom. They didn't have a female administrator in the room.
"They didn't want to deal with the problem, so they tried to make me a scapegoat."
Miller, of OPD, says it isn't unreasonable to search an informer, as informing is a common way to rid oneself of a competing drug dealer. She said she was troubled by the fact that Justice's parents weren't called, "but my first question would be, why was her stuff searched without the presence of an officer?"
Farina endorses Justice's version of the incident.
The drug use is validated in a March 10, 1998, police report that says another student was searched in the presence of an officer, found to have LSD in a pill box in her bra, and arrested.
"There were 20 `users` I knew about," Ashley Justice says. "We reported all the people that we knew were doing drugs, but none of them were called into the office."
Justice says the drug use was constant and obvious for more than a week, and she wonders why adults took no other action. "They were using this in school," she says. "They were knocking over trash cans, laughing. The principal saw it and did nothing. They would talk to the walls and the principal would be right there. They were talking to their food."
School discipline records are confidential, but parents say one girl threatened with expulsion for possessing LSD was instead given a five-day suspension; another student believed to be the dealer was expelled and now attends Boone High School, the parents say.
After the arrest, says Justice, Flores and his vice principal "would treat us with total disrespect. If we were walking on the wrong side of the hallway, we would have to go to the office." This while other kids were still dropping acid in school.
This was not the only drug-related incident in which parents question Flores' judgment. On Oct. 28, 1998, a teacher smelled pot in the girl's locker room and found two students near a burning marijuana cigar. The teacher took the evidence but didn't tell SRO Farina until the next day. Farina took the blunt to Flores, who apparently said he'd handle it.
The principal let the students go and threw away the evidence, the parents charge.
It isn't clear whether Flores discussed the incident with the students who were implicated. "The school's investigation of this incident met with negative results," Farina's report says. "Therefore, this report is being done for information purposes."
Lt. Miller says she complained informally to county education officials after learning about that incident.
The parents in opposition say Flores' tenure has coincided with the school becoming increasingly dangerous. One student has been beaten severely three times this school year, resulting in a broken arm, badly bruised knees from being pushed down a flight of stairs, and a punch in the face that raised a welt the student's father described as "just like a cyst."
The father, who asked that his and his son's name not be used, says Howard and Orange County school officials have been generally unresponsive to his concerns, with the exception of one administrator at Howard. He has spoken to an attorney and says he has "a good case" although he has decided not to file a lawsuit yet. "The head of exceptional education has looked into it," the man says. "They're going to take care of the problems, they say."
Most disturbing to some parents are indications that school officials have not taken threats of violence and reports of guns and bombs on school grounds seriously enough to tell the SRO.
Lt. Miller says on two occasions in recent years she has complained to the district superintendent about principals who withheld vital information from SROs. In one case, an elementary-school principal kept a gun in his desk for several days after it had been taken from a student, handing it over to the SRO on his regular visit rather than calling police immediately. And a 1996 memo from Superintendent Donald Shaw to all principals cautions them of their duty to report all incidents.
Police and the parents say the only unpardonable sin in Orange County schools is being too tough. They say they know of administrators -- at Howard and elsewhere -- who have been pressured out of their jobs for working too closely with their school's police officers.
The battle of Howard Middle School will go down on Paul Flores's permanent record, but it doesn't appear this will be a career-ending setback for the ambitious administrator.
"I think in an elementary school he would make a very good principal, because he is very soft-hearted," says Robin Gregory, a Howard parent. "I told him that I didn't think he was a strong disciplinarian. He told me he believes in `a softer policy` but that he had enacted a new ‘zero tolerance' rule."
Flores denies that his discipline policy has ever been less than "zero tolerance." But, asked what he has learned from the experience, he says, "A lot. I've learned what I don't know as an administrator. It's very important to always strive for open and ongoing communication. And there are things involving leadership I don't know. Fortunately the district has given me the opportunity to hone these skills."