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Comprehensive plan needed for school violence

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The Inquirer’s recent series on school violence has sparked comment from many quarters. The response of Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey, in particular, has provoked some controversy. They have suggested that it might be time to place Philadelphia police officers in some of our more dangerous schools.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was quoted as favoring this idea. Jordan cited his own experiences as a teacher at University City High School where at one time city police officers were assigned.

"They were a key part of our faculty, and young people would go to them and share what was going on in the neighborhood and tip them off. They were able to ward off lots of problems at the school. Their presence, just walking into the lunchroom, would stop a lot of problems before they started."

There is merit to what Jordan says. I too had an opportunity to work with a Philadelphia police officer who was assigned to Vaux Middle School in the mid-'90s.

This officer had officially been assigned to patrol the perimeter of the school property. But in fact she spent most of her time within the school. We provided her with an office where she could do her paperwork. The officer spent a considerable portion of her day interacting with the students in the hallways and the lunchroom. The students responded to her in a positive manner and would go to her with their problems. This police officer was treated by both students and teachers as though she were a member of the staff.

From an administrative point of view, I found it quite advantageous to have a Philadelphia police officer at my school. When a serious incident occurred that required assistance (e.g., gang activity, student street brawls, a weapon on the premises) this officer’s call for help brought a prompt response. Later as an elementary principal in the same neighborhood without an on-site police presence, my District police officer and I often waited for an hour or two for the Philadelphia police to respond to a dangerous and tense situation at our school.

Though I was impressed with the positive role model the officer at Vaux presented to our students and while I appreciated the quick response for help which she brought, I did not and still do not support the idea of stationing armed police officers in schools. It is not that I view the presence of a police officer as being a negative. I simply do not believe that this short-term solution addresses the systemic problems that are the root cause of school violence.

A police presence, though convenient in a time of crisis, can tend to obscure the many real problems that teachers in our most distressed communities confront. It focuses too heavily on reacting to juvenile criminal activity as opposed to preventing problems before they arise.

In an opinion piece published in The Inquirer, Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, describes what is needed to proactively deal with student misbehavior before it erupts into violence.

“We know what works. Extensive research supports evidenced-based practices that improve the school culture, reduce violence, and keep kids in school, such as School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports, restorative justice, bullying prevention, and increased use of school counselors.”

It will be a costly and long-term endeavor to successfully address issues related to violence in schools serving high need populations. Though there are proven strategies that will lead to the establishment of a productive and calm learning environment in these communities, these are often ignored in favor of dubious quick-fix solutions.

Assigning police officers to violent schools, establishing zero-tolerances policies, creating school uniform codes, these are but a few examples of cut-rate approaches to addressing school safety offered by our elected officials. These leaders consistently demonstrate a lack of willingness to sufficiently finance the schools that serve impoverished communities. And they seem to have little patience to wait for the results that will come only after many years of focused attention is given to a chronic problem.

In a recent post, I suggested that Governor Corbett take $200 million of state revenue that has been set aside to build new prisons, and redirect it to the education budget. This money could be used to implement an economic redevelopment plan in the 11 neighborhoods in Philadelphia from which a large number of people are incarcerated and where many of our low-achieving schools are located. 

The Departments of Public Health, Human Services, and Public Safety, and the School District of Philadelphia, would develop this plan. It would involve a wide array of health, social, and educational services tailored to meet the needs of the affected communities. This would be a long-term endeavor that would call for close collaboration among all of the participating agencies. The frequent violence that occurs in these schools is a reflection of the violence that takes place in the surrounding community.

Should the proposal I offer be instituted, I would support the idea of the presence of specially trained police officers as members of the interagency social service teams that would assist these target communities. Their involvement in such a holistic approach to community rebuilding will redefine the meaning of community policing.

What do you think about placing Philadelphia police officers in our public schools?

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