DRACUT -- If bad behavior in school was a wrestling character wearing "BB" on his chest, the 750 students who attend Lakeview Junior High have no doubt their principal, Dr. Robert Fitzgerald Jr., could bend such a ring villain in half and pin him to the mat in seconds.
The barrel-chested, 5-feet, 11-inch, 240-pound Fitzgerald now has a new wrestling plaque -- his most prestigious yet -- and two years' worth of school discipline data to prove it.
On March 2, Fitzgerald was formally enshrined in the New England Wrestling Hall of Fame, along with three other inductees (from Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire), joining an elite crew totaling "only about 20" NEWHOF members, he learned.
"I have been involved in sports all my life, and can't think of anyone more deserving of being in the (New England Wrestling) Hall of Fame," said Greater Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical High School wrestling and football coach Tony Sarkis, who befriended Fitzgerald when they were wrestling opponents in high school.
In the Hall of Fame endorsement letter Sarkis wrote in January, he noted each of Fitzgerald's 310 wins were all the more impressive because they were earned in the "forever tough Merrimack Valley Conference."
Fitzgerald began coaching at 22, after four stellar years at Boston College where he captained the wrestling team and played football alongside Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie as a member of the 1985 Cotton Bowl champions. As a wrestler at BC, Fitzgerald was a Catholic University All-American, won the Dean's award for "Outstanding Student-Athlete." He was also a Rhodes Scholar finalist.
As the son of the late Robert P. Fitzgerald Sr., a Hall of Fame coach in football and wrestling (the football stadium in Lawrence is named for him), and Barbara Fitzgerald, a lifelong educator, it was no great surprise that Bob Jr. had a hankering to coach.
"Since I was a kid (at 22) I wanted to get 100 wins," recalled Fitzgerald, who reached the 300-win plateau in 2001. "My dad was always very proactive in getting kids involved in sports, and one of the first sports I gravitated to was wrestling. I learned a lot from my dad; I wanted to be up on top."
In his endorsement of Fitzgerald's Hall of Fame induction, Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Bolduc, a former coaching assistant of Fitzgerald's who became a successful head wrestling coach at Salem, N.H., and Malden Catholic high schools, described the lasting impact he saw Fitzgerald have on countless student-athletes.
"To an outsider, Bob's demeanor was tough, his practices were difficult, and he held athletes to a high standard," recalled Bolduc. "He constantly challenged these student-athletes, both on and off the mat ... (often) sitting with them to talk about was going on in their lives. He made his athletes feel important; relevant."
Fitzgerald became the principal of Lakeview Junior High on July 1, 2011. Among the first actions taken by the former coach who once filled display cases in Methuen with wrestling trophies was to fill the walls of Lakeview's main hallway with the photos and accomplishments of the school's best students -- transforming it into an academic-achievement hall of fame.
In addition to giving more than just the school's athletes deserved recognition, Fitzgerald set goals of improving student discipline and boosting the staff's morale at Lakeview, he said. Several administrators and staff members say Fitzgerald has succeeded on both counts.
"One of the first thing I noticed is the kudos he gives everybody, the recognition," said Eric Gorby, a 17-year veteran phys-ed teacher in Dracut schools. "One of my favorite movies is 'Vision Quest,' watching it gets me pumped up, and now that's how I feel about coming to work here every day (under Fitzgerald's leadership) ... Dr. Fitz brings our school up to a higher standard. He shows you what you need to do in a very positive way, and that's why there's been such a decrease in the disciplinary problems that had been here previously. It's inspirational and phenomenal."
Fitzgerald cited a statistical comparison of detentions, teacher attendance and number of honor-roll students over the past three years as proof that Lakeview is moving in a positive direction. The number of students on the honor roll for 2012-13 increased by 20.8 percent, and teacher attendance is up by 8 percent over the previous school year, he said.
"That says something important about the environment we've built, because obviously we want our teachers here and in front of our students every day," he said.
The former wrestler and coach seems proudest of all about a dramatic drop-off in student detentions and suspensions at Lakeview since he took over -- accomplished entirely without using his burly arms to put a single student in a headlock or sleeper hold.
According to Lakeview Junior High's fall discipline data supplied by the district, there were 43 student detentions and 24 suspensions imposed by the school in September through November. That's far fewer than the 92 detentions and 73 suspensions imposed through the same period in 2010, before Fitzgerald arrived.
"We made student behavior and student management a priority and we had it well under control by Halloween of my first year (in 2011-12)," Fitzgerald said. "If you happen to be having problems with your behavior at school, I want to learn about your baggage, what might be going on at home that might be interfering with your ability to perform here. For me, discipline is all about building strong relationships with our students. We've really worked hard at that. Kids actually want discipline, and I'm a strict disciplinarian."
Fitzgerald is a constantly visible presence in the school's hallways, classrooms and parking lot before and after school.
"Kids and their parents expect and want them to come here and be safe. That's very important and we've been very successful in that area," Fitzgerald said.
A proactive approach in administering discipline is best to reduce repeats in bad behaviors, Fitzgerald has found.
"The goal is for the kid to understand he's not bad, it's that the decision he made was a bad one," he said. "I never give up on a kid. I maintain a high standard for myself in that regard and take it very personally and feel myself to have failed if I can't turn around a kid's behavior.
"Sometimes it is very difficult to get through to them, but I always believe that tomorrow there is hope, and we're going to find the right buttons to push, and the kid is going to finally realize, 'Wow, this guy really does care about me, this is good information and I need to act on it.'
"You just keep pounding it home, this positive message of morally appropriate behavior, and sooner or later they're going to get it," Fitzgerald said.