Nutter and Ramsey consider putting armed police officers in some schools

Posted: April 09, 2011

Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey are discussing a proposal to put armed city police officers in some schools as part of a comprehensive plan to improve safety and security for the 155,000 students enrolled in the Philadelphia School District.

"We can't ignore the fact that we have a problem, and we have to regain control of the schools," Ramsey said.

The discussions on remedying school violence took place last week, as The Inquirer was publishing a seven-part series, "Assault on Learning."

The series detailed brutal attacks on students and teachers - thousands of assaults are recorded annually - and raised questions about whether the district's incident-reporting system was understating the violence. Articles also showed how student-intervention programs pushed by Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and districtwide antiviolence efforts have been ineffective.

The School District issued a statement Friday saying it was "working closely with the Philadelphia Police Department and the office of Mayor Nutter to discuss ways to provide safety in our School District. It is an ongoing partnership, and we look forward to continued discussions."

Both Nutter and Ramsey think that the Police Department should be in charge of school security and that putting city police in the schools is one way to help curb violence.

"There's no question, that's where they'd [Nutter and Ramsey] like to go," Mark McDonald, the mayor's press secretary, said Friday.

The Police Department began exercising more authority over district safety last summer, when it lent Inspector Myron Patterson to the district to replace safety chief James B. Golden.

Critics said increasing the police presence in the schools won't solve the problem of violence.

"It's not the appropriate response," said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "It does not work."

Yanoff said she hoped "there is a full approach that deals with improving school climate, behavior treatment for kids who need it, and adopting with fidelity those approaches that have been researched and are shown to work."

Michael Lodise, president of the School District police officers union, also questioned the idea.

"What is that going to solve?" he asked. "My guys are trained in dealing with these kids. I do not see any usefulness in it."

Lodise complained this week that the district, as part of budget cutbacks, wanted to lay off 163 school police officers out of the 635 full- and part-time members of the force. District officials declined to confirm that figure.

"They want to cut 163 of my people and put in city cops, which they are short of on the street anyway," Lodise said. "I don't understand that."

Others, including City Councilman Jim Kenney and Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, supported the idea.

"Knowing Charles H. Ramsey and his ability, and the talent of his top commanders," Kenney said, "I'm confident they can come up with a plan to improve safety in city schools."

Jordan said he had been a teacher at University City High School in the 1980s when police officers were stationed in schools.

He said that two uniformed city officers were based there and that it worked wonderfully.

"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," he said. "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."

He disputed the idea - voiced by some critics over the years - that city officers in schools would turn the district into "a police state."

"The policeman is your friend," he said.

Patterson was lent to the district when Golden was fired after five years on the job.

Golden said he had not been consulted on some key safety decisions, and accused district leaders of a lack of focus and direction on safety issues. He was removed after The Inquirer began questioning the district about safety during its yearlong investigation of violence in Philadelphia's public schools.

The series found that there were more than 30,000 serious incidents - two-thirds of them assaults - in the schools during the last five years, and that attacks were carried out by children in the earliest of grades, even kindergarten.

During the 2009-10 school year alone, there were 690 recorded attacks on teachers.

In some cases, violence was not reported or was reported late, The Inquirer found.

Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said in an interview for the series that principals had long had broad latitude in running their schools. As a result, he said, schools vary widely in how they report and handle violence, and whether they call city police.

Neither McDonald, the mayor's aide, nor Ramsey and his spokeswoman, Karima Zedan, would say which schools would be targeted for city police presence or how such a plan would work, but they did say discussions were "preliminary" and "in the earliest of stages."

There are 19 schools among the 257 in the district that are classified as "persistently dangerous," according to state guidelines. To make the list, a school with more than 1,000 students must have 20 dangerous incidents a year that lead to arrests for offenses such as aggravated assault or rape.

The Inquirer series identified an additional 55 schools that had a violent-crime rate as high as or higher than those 19, but that did not make the list because they had not met narrowly focused regulations.

The district's current budget crisis will surely factor into the decision to put city police in the schools.

"A new paradigm of some kind would make sense," said McDonald.

The district acknowledged last week that it was facing a deficit of $629 million and that there had been talk of large-scale layoffs, including some school police officers. School officers are unarmed, but can detain crime suspects until city police respond.

A city budget crisis in the 1980s played a role in city officers' being removed from schools. Over the last decade, there have been calls to reinstate officers, as shootings, rapes, and other violent acts have occurred.

Former Schools Chief Executive Paul Vallas in 2004 asked for city officers to be stationed at neighborhood high schools, but was rebuffed by Mayor John F. Street. The issue became a point of contention between Street and Vallas, who heightened the call after a student was shot in November 2004 outside Strawberry Mansion High School.

Vallas' proposal met with strong opposition from some community groups as well, and Nutter and Ramsey are likely to get some of the same push-back.

Some other large urban districts, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, have armed officers in school and say it works well for them.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has its own 340-member sworn police force. One or two officers are stationed at each high school and one officer at each middle school, and a group of officers patrols elementary schools as needed, a district spokeswoman said.

"These school police officers are not just police officers," the spokeswoman said. "They serve a great deal like the social worker on that campus as well. . . . They have established relationships with all their kids. The kids are extremely comfortable with them."

Ramsey said the department would carefully select the officers for schools.

"It's important that the right officer be assigned to these schools, with the right mentality, that they see themselves as role models and mentors," he said.

In the city, 78 officers already are assigned to patrol areas in and around schools, but none is stationed full-time in the schools.

"This would be an expansion of services," said Zedan, "and collaboration between the district and department."


Contact staff writer John Sullivan at 215-854-2473 or johnsullivan@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

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