One school, five weeks, at least eight fights, and at least 14 children, ages 11 to 14, arrested by the DeLand Police Department.
Those are the stats for DeLand Middle School in the month of October and one week of November, as shown by police reports.
From Oct. 1 to Nov. 8, the DeLand Police Department was called to the school at 1400 S. Aquarius Ave. a total of 87 times. Nearly one-third of those responses were outside of routine walk-and-talk visits and traffic details.
The police responded to assault-and-battery cases, Baker Acts, threats of suicide and fights — all during school hours, all at DeLand Middle.
Parents aren’t notified of these incidents by the administration, the parents said. Instead, they get frantic calls from their children.
“I literally can’t even go to work because I’m worried about my child,” said Amaria Dirch, mother of a sixth-grader at DeLand Middle.
Dirch, a corrections officer at Tomoka Correctional Institution, is fed up. Summoned to the school by her daughter Oct. 24, when she arrived at 11 a.m., she said, the office was full of other concerned parents, and she learned that, apparently, six fights had already taken place that day.
After looking at her daughter’s scratched and puffy face in the nurse’s office, Dirch stood in the front office, waiting to hear details about what had happened to her, she said. She heard the school phone ring six times, never to be answered.
According to the school secretary, Dirch said, all six calls were from the same parent.
Dirch could relate. Previously, when she got wind of something happening at the school, she would attempt to call.
“I left five voicemails because no one ever picked up the phone,” Dirch said.
Instead of the school administration, Dirch said, she relies on her daughter, other parents, and social media to know when something has happened.
“It doesn’t seem like they care,” Dirch said. “If I didn’t show my face out there every other week, they would throw her to the wolves.”
The administration at DeLand Middle School, including the new principal, John R. De Vito, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Likewise, the DeLand Police Department did not respond to The Beacon’s requests to interview the school resource officer assigned to DeLand Middle School or anyone else in the Police Department who could speak about the situation.
The Beacon was referred to Volusia County Schools’ Community Information Office, which also declined the newspaper’s request to interview anyone in the school system.
Community Information Officer Kelly Schulz sent this via email: “I can release this statement regarding your questions about fights at Deland Middle School: We take all matters of this nature very seriously and respond to them expeditiously within the guidelines of local policies and state statute. When necessary we also involve local law enforcement. We are not at liberty to publish or discuss information regarding individual students or reference on-going investigations.”
The school system’s newly hired superintendent, however, did talk to The Beacon. He said his experience shows the problem probably goes beyond DeLand Middle School.
“If the school is experiencing regular encounters, something is going on in the community. We can’t solve only at the school level, we have to reach out to the community,” Dr. Ronald “Scott” Fritz said.
Fritz is scheduled to start work Monday, Dec. 2.
“I can assure you that is something I will look into fairly quickly,” he said. “It’s a problem when kids use fists over voices.”
The prevalence of fighting and disciplinary action at DeLand Middle School is likely to be much higher than shown in police reports obtained by The Beacon, because not all incidents of violence result in police action and police reports.
Statistics for in-school and out-of-school suspensions are not available from the Florida Department of Education until the following school year. Also, records of civil citations, which may be issued by the school resource officer, are not available.
SUMMARY OF INCIDENTS
Oct. 1: A parent asks to speak with DeLand Middle School Resource Officer William Cooper in the office around 2 p.m. After an investigation, Cooper determines that two 12-year-old girls walked into a classroom and started punching another girl for “issues in the past,” according to the police report.
According to a partial email from the teacher included in the report, a campus adviser pulled the two girls away while the teacher attempted to ring the intercom for help. According to the teacher, the victim did not fight back. The two girls both received civil citations for misdemeanor battery.
Oct. 3: At 9:18 a.m., Officer Cooper observes a large crowd behind the cafeteria, and two boys approaching another boy in order to fight him. Cooper attempts to detain the single student, who fights back. Assistant Principal Ryan Mahaney assists Cooper in securing the 14-year-old boy.
All three students are arrested and charged with campus disruption, as the fight caused “several campus advisors and school staff members [to] leave their assigned areas.”
Oct. 8: Around 3:55 p.m., Cooper hears on the radio about a fight. By the time he arrives, one male student is in the nurse’s office with a minor cut on his cheek.
According to one of the students, the two boys, ages 12 and 13, fought in science class during a lesson on movement, involving throwing a football back and forth. No one is charged at the time, because the school day ended.
Oct. 17: Around 9:10 a.m., a fight breaks out in the cafeteria. When Cooper arrives, Assistant Principal Mahaney is attempting to remove a student from the area, but is hampered by “50-75 students in a crowd by the entrance door.” Two 14-year-old boys are arrested for disturbing school functions.
Oct. 17: At 12:22 p.m., DeLand police Officer Dylan Scott responds to DeLand Middle School at the request of two students and their parents in reference to a fight that happened around 11:18 a.m. that day.
After viewing the school’s video-surveillance footage, Scott determines both students, one age 11, the other 13, ran toward each other. He charges both with battery and disturbing school functions.
Oct. 23: Cooper observes one 14-year-old boy punch another from behind in between classes. A large crowd gathers.
The initial attacker tells Cooper the other boy had thrown juice on him an hour earlier.
Because of redactions on the police report, it is unclear from the report who exactly was charged, and who qualified for a civil citation.
Oct. 24: Cooper is called to the front office to speak with a parent. The parent tells Cooper her daughter was hit in the back of the head during class.
The student tells Cooper she had been “asked several times by different students if she was a boy,” according to the incident report, and then was hit from behind.
According to the report, the case is still active.
Nov. 8: At roughly 4:20 p.m., which is when school lets out, approximately 100 students gather behind a school building.
Cooper secures one student, but another runs toward him. Cooper attempts to trip the student, but ends up falling with the student he had secured. When Cooper gets up, he sees yet another student trying to fight someone else.
Cooper manages to corral two students, handcuffed, into a patrol vehicle.
After arresting the two students, Cooper hears about another fight, now at the front of the building.
A total of seven students were arrested and charged with disturbing the educational process. Four of the students told Cooper they had no idea why or how the fight happened.
One boy told Cooper another student had punched him earlier that day.
BY THE NUMBERS
Student population at DeLand Middle School in the 2018-19 school year
Fights at the school resulting in police reports, between Oct. 1 and Nov. 8, 2019
Children ages 11 to 15 detained as a result of those fights*
Total students given in-school or out-of-school suspensions, or placed in alternative education, at DeLand Middle School during the 2017-18 school year. The figure is 29.7 percent of the student population at the time.
Total students given in-school, out-of-school suspensions, and placement in alternative education countywide during the 2017-18 school year
Percentage of the student population suspended from schools countywide during the 2017-18 school year
— Source: http://www.fldoe.org/safe-schools/discipline-data.stml
*Editor’s note: In some cases, a student involved in a fight can qualify for a misdemeanor civil citation, which is not an arrest. And, because the names are redacted, it’s difficult to discern the exact number of children involved in any particular incident. According to police reports, 14 children were charged and arrested, and two qualified for civil citations in this time period. However, the exact number may be larger.