March 10 — 12:00 am, 2005

High schools looking at alternatives to more police

With some 2,500 "serious incidents" reported at Philadelphia public high schools last year and two murders outside school doors this year, policing remains a prime focus of attention for high schools. School safety is also consistently the top-ranking concern expressed by parents.

More police, School District officials admit, is what high school principals most often request to address safety problems.

But others – District officials included – identify different policing strategies and better policing as likely to make the biggest impact on school violence. These approaches are now getting attention in Philadelphia’s public high schools.

Different policing approaches, sometimes called "alternative policing," currently exist in the form of a handful of voluntary, community-led efforts – like a clergy-led campaign following a shooting near Germantown High – as well as a District pilot program now underway around three neighborhood high schools that teams with a community anti-violence group.

Pennsylvania legislators, the District’s Office of School Climate and Safety, and advocacy groups that have complained about strained relations between students and school police officers are all exploring ways to institute better policing.

More policing

The District police force is already among the largest forces in the state, with 700 officers at its disposal.

Some 450 personnel work as full-functioning, uniformed school police officers. The other 250 are "per diem" officers who receive about half the training and who chiefly assist on safety-related issues. They are currently part of daily staffing in the District’s schools.

Each high school is also equipped with a walk-through metal detector, a conveyor-belted x-ray machine that scans book bags and purses, and security cameras that schools can opt to use.

Schools CEO Paul Vallas has also urged the city to submit a proposal for federal funding that would pay for two armed, uniformed city police officers to be stationed full-time at 31 neighborhood high schools.

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street has squelched the proposal, saying he didn’t want schools seen as "armed penitentiaries" and cited the public outrage that was bound to ensue if a police officer actually shot a student in school.

But Vernard Trent, director of the District’s Office of School Climate and Safety, stresses that schools should not focus safety responsibilities solely on the police officers in the building.

"If you talk to school principals, there are never enough police," Trent says. "But when we go in and do an analysis of what amount of staff is needed to cover a school, in many cases, they have enough staff. It’s the adults in the building overall who contribute to school safety."

Critics of the growing police presence in schools say it inevitably places children in the category of outlaws.

And sometimes, critics charge, bad policing contributes to school climate problems.

According to District Chief Safety Officer Dexter Green, "80 to 85 percent of my people understand the direction we’re moving in and are using their talents to do their job."

But Eric Braxton, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), cites student complaints of physical or verbal mistreatment by school police or other staff, including slamming students against lockers, throwing them down stairs "and really injuring people."

"We think there’s plenty of police in schools," he says. "The problem is an overall school climate that’s disrespectful toward staff and students."

Malik Aziz, with the Mayor’s Office of Community Service and a co-chair of Men United for a Better Philadelphia, offered, "In all the schools I’ve been in – high and middle schools – where police are at, there are few that have a rapport with students. The ones that do are ones that have had community involvement or have worked with children . . . whether it’s sports, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA or church youth groups."

PSU has worked on ways to help create more positive relations and greater understanding between staff and students.

At Bartram High School, which Braxton called "a real hot spot for school violence and conflicts between staff and students," the group organized a basketball tournament where students and staff played on the same team. Another breakthrough was convincing the District to fund a project with the Fellowship Farm, a Montgomery County retreat, which worked with 35 Bartram students and staff members on building a culture of respect.

"By the end, we had created a real understanding," Braxton said.

Many say good relationships are the most effective prevention technique schools have at their disposal.

Getting along

School police training is beginning to encompass more than just policing.

"Now a school police officer has to know psychology, sociology, instruction, curriculum," says Trent.

Today’s urban schools also operate in an extremely respect-sensitive environment, where a slight can quickly lead to violence. Of the two murders that occurred outside high schools this year, one involved a $50 bet over a rap contest, and another, a confrontation whose participants may have been vying for the attention of the same girl.

But adolescent behavior is still not among the topics covered in school police training, which Green doubled from two to four weeks two years ago ("And I still don’t believe that’s enough," he says). The curriculum does cover dozens of topics from antisocial behavior to victim assistance.

Different policing

Recent efforts show the community can play an effective role.

When a student was shot outside Strawberry Mansion, members of the NAACP and Men United for a Better Philadelphia rushed to the scene, offering an additional adult presence.

Days after an after-school shooting near Germantown High School, an estimated 1,000 men encircled that school in prayer. Since then, members from 16 churches have taken Town Watch training. Some have formed foot patrols and established rites-of-passage programs. Others found scores of students to participate in a choir.

"A vision came out of the first meeting," said Rev. LeRoi Simmons, an associate minister at Canaan Baptist Church, who organized the response outside Germantown High School. "We wanted to see a thousand men out. We had a meeting almost every day and people were dedicated and committed and came up with an extensive plan."

The District is piloting its own alternative policing programs at West Philadelphia, University City, and FitzSimons, partnering with Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

"We’re trying to bring in community-based organizations to assist us with changing the climate in schools," Green said. "They will work with administration around safe corridors, around accommodation rooms, and dealing with students who’ve presented problems to schools."

Nicholas Torres, executive director for Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a community-based social service agency, said of the strategy, "I think it’s a good idea because the solution for a safe environment in schools is not only discipline. Responsible adult intervention can prevent a child from being arrested and suspended and save the District a lot of hassle."

For more information on alternative policing, contact Men United for a Better Philadelphia at 215-236-3372 or Vernard Trent of the Office of School Climate and Safety at 215-299-2695.

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