Policing the hallways

In Reports

In a tiny office at Chamberlain High School, the kid with dreadlocks was cussing out the police.“Man, hurry up! Bald-headed b——!”

Tampa police Officer Kert Rojka, a straight-backed 36-year-old with thinning hair, stared impassively at his computer screen; another officer eased on rubber gloves so he could search the kid for drugs.

“I hate crackers!” Dreadlocks was saying. “Who you calling? Your wife? Tell her I said, ‘Wassup!’”

Next door, the chorus was practicing scales. Dreadlocks slumped in his chair, hands cuffed behind him, heels resting on the crumpled backs of his Jordans.

He was 16 years old and 127 pounds, in a pale blue alligator shirt. His criminal record included grand theft auto and fleeing and eluding. On Thursday, he was arrested for violating probation: He had missed four days of school without an excuse.

Since Sept. 27, schools in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania’s Amish country have been attacked by armed strangers and, in one case, a student. The shootings have dominated the news, but they are not the main reason that officers like Rojka walk concrete block hallways and troll school parking lots before the first bell.

At Chamberlain, as at most schools, crime is persistent, unglamorous and largely hidden from public view. It is the boy smoking a cigarette outside the Citgo at 7:45 a.m. and the boy who stuck his hand down a disabled girl’s pants and the kid who threatened to bring a gun to school and a student overheard in a bathroom saying, “When I shoot, I shoot to kill.”

“God forbid somebody comes in with a gun, but I don’t worry about that,” Rojka said Thursday. “I worry about the average, the everyday: I got truants, I got kids fighting, I got a kid out of control.”

Chamberlain is a C school whose 2,250 students are about a quarter black, a quarter Hispanic, and 41 percent white; nearly half qualify for free or discounted lunch. At the annual Green Corn Assembly, the principal puts on an elaborate feathered headdress, the girls come in homemade sequined dresses and the boys wear buckskin. There is a drama club, a football team called the Chiefs and a modest crime rate.

“It’s not a sterile environment at all,” said principal Jeff Boldt, a mountain of a man with a gray beard and cuff links.

As in any community, the criminal element at Chamberlain is a small minority; 90 percent of its students are more likely to be practicing sprints or heading to a school-sponsored pizza party than sitting in Rojka’s small, bare office.

The school has two armed officers on duty: Alex Montalvo, a retired Buffalo police officer; and Rojka, a father of two who leads school administrators in grace at lunchtime. Their beat is a network of speckled linoleum halls lined with green lockers that become a sea of Superman backpacks and gelled hair when the bell rings.

Rojka picked up 15 kids for truancy in September, and he arrests about a dozen a month for offenses like burglary, drug possession and assault. A girl once bit and punched him in the face when he was trying to break up a fight. A student tried to steal a piece of pizza by sticking it in his pocket. This year alone, Rojka has arrested two kids with cocaine, one with a knife and one with a bottle of vodka in his backpack.

Chamberlain was built in 1956, before people worried about strangers straying onto campus. Last year, a homeless man wandered in carrying a teddy bear; two years back, Rojka learned that a man working on the roof was suspected of sexually abusing a student. The campus is bounded by Busch Boulevard and N Boulevard ; its chain-link fence is easy to climb, and the gates usually hang open.

“It’s virtually impossible to lock down the school,” Rojka said.But Thursday, it wasn’t trespassers who were giving him trouble.

In an assistant principal’s office, he met a freckled boy in a T-shirt that said “Born To Be Bad.” A physically and mentally disabled girl had accused him of sticking his hand down her pants.

“Are you scared?” Rojka asked.

“A little bit.”

“Listen, did you just want to cop a feel?”

The boy looked relieved. “Yeah, I mean, because I’m just a teenager.”

“Just because you’re a teenager and you’ve got all this stuff going on in your body, you don’t have a right to go up and grab a girl’s butt,” Rojka told him. “Girls are not your toy.”

He thought the boy might be charged with battery.

Back in his office midmorning, he ran his eyes down a list of students on probation. That’s when he saw Dreadlocks’ name and found the unexcused absences.

“I need to go 10-15 on someone,” he told Montalvo over the radio. “You want to help me?”

“I’m not going to give him a chance to run,” Rojka said when they met in the hallway. They found Dreadlocks in an assistant principal’s office.

“I was in the hospital, man. What are you talking about?” Dreadlocks said.

In his office, Rojka dialed the kid’s mother. She didn’t mention the hospital. He told her he was taking her son to the juvenile jail.

“Every time I come back to this school, you all be doing this!” the teen railed. “You can’t even come to school and be straight, man! Crackers, oh, I can’t stand ’em!”

He said he wasn’t part of the Drak gang — didn’t even know what it was — until Montalvo found the word “Drak” tattooed on his arm.

They led him out of Chamberlain in handcuffs, past trophy cabinets and a display case full of football helmets, cheerleading pompoms and autumn leaves.

First published in the St. Petersburg Times.



Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.

Submit a comment