Lehigh looking for help: Latest data shows issues inside, outside the classroom

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

More attacks and fighting to go along with low test scores; Data just released by the Florida Department of Education paints a scary picture of how students are trending inside and outside the classroom in Lehigh Acres.

Last summer, WINK investigative reporter Peter Fleischer studied disciplinary and academic data to highlight the current state of education within Lehigh Acres. His follow-up revealed that those trends appear to be getting worse.  

Our initial investigation was prompted by a video that went viral in Lee County in February 2023. In it, a middle school-aged girl is assaulted inside a bathroom while several other students watch and film the incident on their phones.

Flash forward to today and Fleischer found dozens of videos on social media, posted to public accounts. They appear to show Lehigh Acres-area students fighting on buses and in schools.

Issues increase

Lehigh parent Danielle Kicker doesn’t know the kids involved, but when Fleischer showed her some of those videos, they brought her back to a terrible place.

“I’ve already been there,” Kicker admits with disgust. “I know what it feels like to see your child get beat up on camera.”

Kicker’s daughter was the girl who was attacked in the video that prompted WINK’s first investigation into Lehigh-area schools. A Lee County Sheriff’s Office report shows Kicker’s daughter at Veteran’s Park Academy on February 2, 2023, hours after Kicker spoke with the principal, begging for help.

As a result of the attack, Kicker’s daughter was traumatized. She moved to Missouri to live with extended family, scared to go back to school.

“I think it’s horrible. I think it’s probably at its peak,” Kicker suggested about the level of violence in Lee Schools. “I can’t imagine it getting any worse. You run out of schools to go to.”

Numbers from the state confirm Kicker’s fears that the issues are getting worse in Lehigh Acres.

In the past, the Lehigh area struggled to get the same resources and support as the rest of the district, but Lee schools has made an effort to better invest in Lehigh in recent years.

The Florida Department of Education released its SESIR data for the 2022-2023 school year. SESIR – school environmental safety incident reporting – is meant to track the most “disruptive and dangerous” incidents in Florida schools.

Fleischer spoke with Dr. Jennifer Sughroe, a program coordinator at FGCU’s College of Education. She explained the potential impact when a young student is the victim of a traumatizing incident.

“It can lead to suicide, the most extreme, and it has. We’ve seen that,” Dr. Sughroe insisted. “It can lead to disaffection with the school: They don’t want to go to school anymore. Grades begin to fall.”

“There are long-term negative effects,” Kicker agreed, citing her daughter’s own experience. “They want to drop out, they don’t want to go to school, they become withdrawn, their sense of self depreciates.”

Fleischer tracked the stats for every school in Lehigh Acres at the elementary, middle and high school level. There was some good news: Of the 12 public schools located in Lehigh Acres, six of them saw decreases in SESIR incidents.

Six Lehigh schools saw decreases in SESIR incidents

But the other six schools saw increases. Overall, schools in Lehigh Acres reported 177 more SESIR incidents for the 2022-23 school year than the year before. And no school in Lehigh saw more incidents or a higher increase in incidents than Veteran’s Park Academy, the same school where Kicker’s daughter was attacked.

Six Lehigh schools saw increases in SESIR incidents

“I’ve never seen a set of kids like this. I’ve never seen a county like this,” Kicker lamented. “You run out of places to go in Lehigh.”

Veteran’s reported 241 total SESIR incidents for the 2022-23 school year. 43 physical attacks and 79 instances of fighting. Sughroe says widespread disciplinary problems like that point to systematic issues.

“You have a teacher shortage, you end up with a counselor shortage,” Sughroe explained.

“My child would go through two and three teachers in a semester,” Kicker claimed. “All of a sudden she has a new teacher. You can’t keep up with the teachers because they’re walking out the door as fast as they’re walking in. The teacher shortage is a very big problem.”

Fleischer requested an interview with Lee Schools superintendent Dr. Chris Bernier – or any other district professional – to discuss the issues in Lehigh Acres; the district declined.

Fleischer also reached out multiple times to the school board member for Lehigh, Armor Persons; he never responded.

Nobody was willing to address these concerning trends, but the district says there are plans to discuss the issues at a school board meeting on March 26. They also sent WINK News a statement:

            The School District is aware of the data and addressing it. With the input of school administrators, teachers and community members we have teams developing supports and interventions.  A presentation to the School Board of the ideas generated is anticipated to take place March 26th so it is inappropriate to discuss this information with the media before it is shared with the Board. We invite you and the public to attend the Board Briefing when this issue will be discussed.”

“All these parents are feeling the helplessness that I felt,” Kicker said sadly. “There was no help out there.”

Hope for happiness

Luckily, Kicker’s family situation has improved drastically over the last year. New artwork all over her house shows that her daughter is back at home.

“She’s excited to go to school,” Kicker beams. “She’s excited to see her friends.”

Lee Schools relocated her to an alternative school where she speaks with counselors and has a personalized learning plan.

“I’m just so excited that she’s good academically and physically and emotionally,” Kicker says, glowing that her daughter has never been happier in a classroom setting.

She knows her daughter’s school experience will demand long-term attention. But, she did have a message for families whose students might be struggling.

“Don’t give up. Fight for what you know is right. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Fleischer also sorted through standardized test scores in Lehigh Acres. Of the 12 schools there, only one finished at or above average in English and Math performance.

WINK will continue to follow up to learn how the district plans to address these problems.

You can see all of the SESIR data for Lee County by using this spreadsheet, published by FLDOE.

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