The Hidden Truth: Violence on campus of Joseph Stilwell Middle School

Parents tell I-TEAM they had no idea about fights, drugs, attacks on employees

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The I-TEAM has uncovered disturbing information about the prevalence of violence on the campus of Joseph Stilwell Middle School.  

We started digging into what has been happening on campus, after a tip led us to discover a special needs student may have been sexually assaulted in the boy’s bathroom at the school last January.  The district did not inform parents of the alleged incident until April 4th, when a teacher was suspended for failing to supervise two students on the day the alleged attack occurred.  A letter sent home to parents, informed them of the teacher’s suspension, but made no mention of the nature of the investigation and possible rape that occurred.  

Now, according to statistics provided to us by the Duval County School District, we have learned of other incidents on campus that have occurred since August of 2017:

2017-2018 (as of March 2018)

  • 36 fights
  • 43 instigating fights
  • 12 drugs-possession or under the influence
  • 17 physical attack on school board employee

Jennifer Waugh talks to parents

Parents we spoke to told us, they had no idea.  

“I wasn’t aware of that,” said one parent after dropping her child off at the Westside School.  

A woman who has a granddaughter who attends the school, told us, “I’m shocked.  Drugs?  I’m shocked.  I didn’t know anything about that.”  

When we asked the school district for details about the fights, drugs and physical attacks, we were told that information could not be provided because state statute prohibits the release of any of the information, unless a felony arrest has been made.  

The district said in those cases, no one was charged with a felony.  Citing state statute, the district says its hands are tied because the only information it said it could release is statistical data.  

The Duval County School District has its own police department.  But, there are occasions when the district will call the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for assistance with problems that occur on a school campus.  

We requested a list of those calls from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, referred to as "Calls For Service" and received a list of 51 dating back to January 1, 2017 through March 22, 2018.  Some of those calls for assistance were after hours, when the school was closed, and some of the calls indicate that they were canceled shortly after being made.  

We requested more information about 25 of them, which included drug investigations, a concealed weapons call, investigations in which an injunction was served, a call labeled “warrant,” another one labeled, “armed,” and several labeled “investigate.”;

Stillwell campus

The calls for service list only reveals the date, time of call, a one to three-word description, and the identification of the officer.  No detailed descriptions are provided.  Several of the calls indicated a general report was written. We requested copies of those reports.  A spokesperson with JSO told us, the reports were not generated by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, but were initiated by School Board police officers. We were referred back to the school district for details.  

When we sent a list of those calls to the district, it told us all of the reports, except for one, were confidential citing state statute 985.04.  We contacted the city’s general counsel’s office, which advises the school district on public records requests, asking why these reports are considered confidential.

We understand student names and any information that would reveal the identity of a juvenile are protected under state statute, we expected that information to be redacted.  But, we did not understand why details about the incidents were not being release. For example, what kind of drugs were found? Where?  How much was discovered?  Was anyone injured in the fights?  How many students were involved?  The school board employees who were attacked, how badly were they hurt, if at all?  

None of that information was provided by the district.  The report it did release, involved a felony arrest of a 12-year-old student who was found on campus with a razor.    

We asked parents of students at Joseph Stilwell Middle School if they believe the information involving details about drugs, fights, and physical attacks on school employees should be released to the public. 

One grandmother told us, ‘That’s not fair to us as parents not knowing when we’re sending our kids here to learn, and this is what they’re experiencing, no, that’s not fair.”  

She said she may now pull her granddaughter out of the school.  

Another parent, who has a child with special needs said, “I should know, my child goes here.  I should be well aware of what’s going on at the school. That’s upsetting, they won’t release that information.”

The district did respond to our inquiry about what is being done to reduce the number of drugs, fights and physical attacks at Joseph Stilwell Middle School. It indicated that violence has decreased at the school compared to last year and sent us these numbers.

 As it turns out, during the 2016-2017 school year there were many more incidents of violence on campus:

  • 81 fights
  • 64 Initiating a fight
  • 47 Drugs- possession or under the influence
  • 26 physical attack on school board employee

(See graphic below to compare school years at Joseph Stilwell Middle School)

We would like to give you details about how bad those fights were or what kind of drugs were found, but for now, the school district says no, that information is confidential.  

News4Jax disagrees with the school district’s argument that it does not legally have to release details about violence, drugs on campus or any other police activity to the public. The I-TEAM is working with the district’s lawyer to understand why its interpretation of state law would keep these details confidential from other parents.  We will continue to press the district to explain its legal argument and keep you posted.

Since our story aired, a woman called me identifying herself as the chair of the Student Advisory Council at the school. She is concerned about the negative attention the school is receiving. She said since becoming a magnet school, violence has dropped significantly at Stilwell Middle and that the advisory council meets monthly and shares with parents statistical data about what happens on campus. She urged parents to read the minutes from those minutes, if they are unable to attend.  Those minutes are available in the school office.  

Also, since the story aired, Duval County school board member Scott Shine emailed me and said that even as a board member, he has had trouble getting records from the Duval County school system.

Shine wrote, "Being involved in government and social activism, DCPS is the lease (sic) compliant and diligent agency I have come across in the State of Florida."  He added, "Being an elected representative to the board, and not being able to get records, truly frames out how distant we are from the spirit of open government."

When I spoke with Shine over the phone, he said his record requests have been related mostly to board matters, but said he was not surprised to hear the I-TEAM has had trouble getting details about violence on the campus of Joseph Stilwell Military Academy of Leadership.

Shine disagreed with the district's stance that it cannot release any details of police activity, writing that information that does not identify a student's identity should be disclosed.  He added, "I hope our school system will come inline with public records law and come to the understanding that the school district is owned by, and accountable to the citizens."

Shine also suggested that the I-TEAM contact the office of Florida's attorney general, to speak with someone he described as an unbiased expert on the subject of public records.

In response to Shine's comments about the public records process, the school district provided the following statement to the I-TEAM:

Because Mr. Shine is a School Board member and participates in setting the policies we must follow, it would not be appropriate for the district administration to address his comment.

While we do value open government, the confidentiality of student records is strongly protected by federal and state law. We will not waiver under any pressure to violate student confidentiality as required by law."

- Tracy A. Pierce, Ph.D., DCPS Chief of Marketing and Public Relations

We did contact JSO and the State Attorney’s Office about the possible sexual assault of a special-needs student in January on campus.  JSO says it cannot comment on active investigations.  The State Attorney’s Office would not confirm it is investigating and told us nothing can be released to the public at this time.

 

Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.