School cops learn new techniques for 'climate change'

Police Officer Carl Curtis and Sgt. Robert Samuels monitor new camera surveillance system.
Police Officer Carl Curtis and Sgt. Robert Samuels monitor new camera surveillance system.
Posted: September 08, 2010

SCHOOL POLICE officers play an important role in maintaining a proper climate and student safety, which a pilot program under way in the district hopes to modify and expand.

The concept is simple, but the reward could be great, said Debbie Plotnick, director of advocacy for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, sponsor of the program at Martin Luther King High, in West Oak Lane.

The program instructs school police officers not only how to identify social, emotional and mental needs of students, but also teaches them to direct youth to the appropriate services they need instead of cracking down on them.

"It's more than just a training," said MHASP child advocate Alyssa Goodin. "We want them [officers] to know how to refer youth who are experiencing some kind of crisis to the appropriate services rather than resorting to force or sending them to the justice system or expelling them, if possible."

For five days starting last week, 16 school police officers from various schools across the district have been gathering to learn how to de-escalate potentially violent situations, break down stereotypes and build relationships.

Other topics include learning to deal with students battling substance abuse, depression and family trauma.

"One of the things it does is puts us all on the same level," said Anthony Jones, a 14-year veteran who polices Germantown High School. "It's not us against them. We're trying to improve each other's lives."

Officers who complete the five-day training will become certified members of the Climate Improvement Team, Plotnick said, and researchers will track participants' progress while on the job and how effectively they apply their new skills.

Ultimately, she added, the hope is to expand the program to all district schools.

In a school district with numerous clashes between school police and students, a service like this is needed, she said.

For instance, assaults on school police, jumped 17 percent last school year, according to a report released last year by the state on persistently dangerous schools.

After hearing a presentation by members of the Philadelphia Student Union on building relationships and breaking down stereotypes, Police Officer Douglas Hatcher, assigned to Rhodes High School, at 29th and Clearfield streets, in North Philadelphia, said he didn't realize how often students and school police clash over shared experiences.

"We have a lot of things in common in the way that our day starts and the way their day starts," he said.

"They may have issues in the morning before they leave, they may have an argument with their parents, they may not eat. . . . We might be the same way. When you [get to school], it affects your day."

Candace Carter, a 2009 Sayre High School graduate, who facilitated the workshop yesterday, said the program helped to improve the climate at her alma mater after a melee there between students and school police.

"We see it as a start here to something we can do bigger across the district, in all schools, and not just neighborhood schools, but magnet schools that have these problems," she said.

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