Armed with guns and understanding

At Yates High School in Houston, school police officer Willie Demby Jr. jokes with a student. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
At Yates High School in Houston, school police officer Willie Demby Jr. jokes with a student. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 06, 2011

HOUSTON - The teenage boys were about to come to blows in the hallway at Yates High School over $10 one had purloined from the other's pocket - as a prank, he protested.

Willie Demby Jr. - all 6-foot-2, 235 pounds of him - quickly cooled down the dispute.

Demby, 44, is a school police officer for the Houston Independent School District, academy-trained and armed with a gun, a baton, and pepper foam. He could have arrested the offending student, but he didn't see the need - "98.5 percent of policing is conversation, 1.5 percent is physical," said Demby, who views mentoring students as an important part of his job.

With its armed and highly trained school force, Houston offers a substantially different model of school policing than Philadelphia, where leaders are pondering how to cope with widespread school violence. An Inquirer series, "Assault on Learning," documented 30,000 violent incidents over a five-year period.

In April, following the series, Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey raised the possibility of putting regular city police in some schools, which are now guarded by 400-plus unarmed school police officers, who are trained for just four weeks before going on the job. Officers are not screened for drug use, and mentoring students is not part of their job description.

"We can't ignore the fact that we have a problem, and we have to regain control of the schools," Ramsey said at the time. So far, the city has shied away from introducing armed officers, opting this week to recommend better training and screening for school police.

This approach makes Philadelphia an exception among America's 10 largest cities. An Inquirer survey found that eight of them deploy armed police in schools in some form, and a ninth city - New York - uses fully qualified, but unarmed, police officers.

Houston's school system is similar to the Philadelphia district - the overwhelming majority of its students are African American or Hispanic, many of them impoverished. Its enrollment of 202,000 is about a quarter larger.

Yet, its school police force is much smaller than Philadelphia's - only 186 sworn officers, 105 of whom are school-based and responsible, not just for keeping order in the schools, but for tracking down truants. The rest of the officers are administrative or assigned to mobile squads.

While its methods may at times seem harsher than in Philadelphia - Houston school-police K-9 units conduct random sweeps for weapons and drugs - statistics suggest that its professionally policed schools are markedly less violent than Philadelphia's.

Houston reported 925 assaults, or 46 per 10,000 students, compared with Philadelphia's 2,696 assaults, or 175 per 10,000 students.

When Nutter and Ramsey raised the idea of armed police in Philadelphia schools, they faced fierce pushback. But educators interviewed in the Houston school system are pleased with the armed officers in a force controlled by the district.

"It was never a serious controversy in Houston, and it has worked well," said Gayle Fallon, the teachers' union president. "I'd rather have one of our armed police confront a student than a city officer. They are just so much more used to dealing with the kids, and less likely to overreact."

In Houston, as in Philadelphia, some local groups argue that armed police in schools will inevitably criminalize behavior that should be handled with discipline.

But consider what happened when Demby - the only officer at Yates, with its 980 students - intervened to forestall the budding fight. As the parent of four teenagers, he spoke to the boys in a stern but fatherly manner, rather than referring them for discipline.

"Don't you feel like you owe him $10?" Demby asked the offending youth.

"Yeah, but I'm not going to give him my last $10," the boy answered. He explained that his backpack had been stolen and that he no longer had the other boy's $10.

Demby told him to empty his pockets. Out came $8. Demby handed it to the victim, whose anger turned to sadness when he saw that the boy - who had been his friend - was broke. "I'm going to give him $2 back," the victim said.

Demby gave the boy the $2: "Sometimes you have to 'fess up to your responsibility, like a grown man."

An intuitive feel

The girl's emotions were still raw.

Her boyfriend, the father of her unborn daughter, had been shot to death earlier that week in an apartment complex parking lot in a gang dispute. Back at Yates, some of the students were cursing him to her face.

Demby intervened.

"If [Demby] wasn't there, I probably would have retaliated physically," said the girl, who is 17 and nine months pregnant.

While an authority figure, Demby has an intuitive feel for the students - he calls his own children his "hobby" - and for the neighborhood, the city's historic Third Ward, a center for African American culture and education since freed blacks began arriving in large numbers after the Civil War.

Demby earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Texas Southern University, a historically black institution whose campus is right next door to Yates. He was previously a Houston city cop but also had jobs as a chemical-plant manager and a mortgage-loan officer.

He works out of a spartan office but is more often seen in the hallways of Yates, a low-slung, 1950s-era building of orange brick with large, red plate-glass windows.

The school is well-known for its athletes and entertainers. Its 2010 basketball team was ranked No. 1 in the country, and its famous graduates include football stars Dexter Manley and Santana Dotson and entertainers Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show and her sister Debbie Allen.

Like many neighborhood high schools in the inner city, Yates has had its academic ups and downs and its share of violence and disruption - in the last year alone, three principals have shuttled in and out.

Gang activity is a long-standing plague in the city. The Houston Chronicle reported that, since 2007, more than 100 people in Houston have been killed in gang attacks.

Armed school police were introduced in 1992, amid mounting concern about students' bringing weapons to city schools and the shooting death of a high school student on campus after a football game.

State legislation had paved the way for local districts to establish their own force.

The move was met with some trepidation.

"Crime and violence cannot be tolerated on Houston's school campuses," the Chronicle wrote in an editorial. "But much can be done to improve security before the Houston Independent School District places its own armed guards in schools."

The school board gave its middle schools and high schools the choice of armed officers, and 83 percent immediately opted for them.

Manuel Moctezuma, 49, a cop in the district for 20 years, recalls the transformation when he traded in his coat and tie for a uniform and gun.

"It made a big difference ... more respect," he recalled. "Before, it was: You're not a police officer. You don't even have a gun."

Today, every middle and high school in the district - whose students are about 60 percent Hispanic and a quarter black - has at least one officer. The department, including a K-9 unit, a gang unit, and an internal affairs division, runs on an $11 million budget. (In Philadelphia, the school police budget is $34 million.)

Schools are allotted officers based on multiple factors: neighborhood demographics, school size and crime rate, discipline actions, and gang activity.

While Yates has only one officer, high schools in Philadelphia have two to nine officers, according to district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Some Houston schools also use security guards, for which the school police department recently took over the hiring and training.

The change to armed officers with the ability to arrest hasn't eliminated crime. In 2006, an intruder penetrated Westbury High and raped a student in the bathroom. In April, two gunmen opened fire at an after-school powder-puff football game (not district-sponsored) in south Houston.

But officers and educators say that, overall, schools are much safer than they had been and are better environments for learning.

Fallon, of the teachers' union, said teachers were glad to have the officers, especially considering the city's gang violence.

But Fallon, who grew up outside Philadelphia, said the communities were different.

"You have to put into perspective the fact that this is Texas and that, at one point, there was [proposed] legislation that would have armed the teachers," she said, noting that the union opposed it.

Hiring and training

The class-change bell rings at Wheatley High, and school police officer Mac Moore is planted firmly in the hallway.

"Let's go! Let's go!" he yells, then blows his whistle.

Like many of the school district officers, Moore, 51, formerly served as a Houston city police officer. He spent 23 years on the city force, his last stint in special operations escorting Enron executives to and from trial.

To be eligible for a job as a school police officer, applicants must complete six months of basic training, just like any municipal officer in Texas. They then get an additional 12 to 14 weeks of school-based training.

Applicants also face an intense screening process: They are tested for drugs and given psychological and physical exams and written aptitude tests. They are subjected to a polygraph test and background investigation, including criminal checks and questioning of neighbors and family. In the polygraph, they're asked personal questions about drug use, sexual deviance, theft, and their use of social media.

"We want to make sure they don't have anything out there on the Web that could come back to embarrass us," explained Jimmy Dotson, chief of the school district police force. "If they can't go to court and be a credible witness, then we don't need them as a police officer."

Dotson, a Vietnam veteran, earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Houston and served in the Houston Police Department for 24 years, the last seven as assistant chief. After a stint as police chief in Chattanooga, Tenn., he returned to Houston in 2009 and took over the school district police department.

Having high-quality officers is paramount, he said. Applicants who have used drugs more dangerous than marijuana aren't likely to get hired, Dotson said. And if they say they have smoked marijuana hundreds of times - or within the last 10 years - that could bar them as well.

In Philadelphia, where officers are not screened for drug use, The Inquirer recently reported that the school police had hired an acknowledged crack addict. In September, after the officer was arrested for crack possession a second time, she showed up at a hearing in uniform.

In Houston, officers are subjected to random drug and alcohol testing after their hiring - something that doesn't happen in Philadelphia - and must take 20 to 40 hours of training per year.

Pay for an officer ranges from $38,042 to $58,964. In Philadelphia, where the cost of living is higher, school-officer pay ranges from $33,065 to $51,507.

At Wheatley High, a predominantly black school with about 1,000 students, Moore prides himself on his relationship with students.

To show them he cares, Moore started a $350 scholarship. The award recognizes Wheatley's most-improved athlete.

"A lot of these kids have nothing to eat," he said. "They're homeless. Some of them can't read. You have to reach under to find out why these kids are acting out. ...

"It goes beyond policing," he said. "You're a father figure. You're an uncle. You're everything."

The relationships pay off in other ways, too, he said.

He estimates that as many as one in five students could be associated with gangs. He and his partner make it their business to get to know the heads of the gangs.

"We say, You've got to control your boys inside this school. We're going to hold you responsible for what they do," Moore said.

The biggest challenge, he said, is developing patience.

"If you don't have patience," he said, "you'll find yourself going to prison."

Fully armed officers

It was dismissal time at Worthing High. A group of about 60 students had gathered across the street in a local shopping strip when a fight broke out. Gun shots pierced the air.

School police officer Jason Watson, 30, called for backup, then drew his gun.

But he never had to use it. Confronted by Watson, the shooter surrendered.

That incident, more than a year ago, was a rarity for the district.

An officer fired a gun only once in the last five years, and it was while the officer was off campus and off duty.

Officers hardly ever draw their guns on campus, school district records show. And they haven't been fired upon in recent memory, district police officials say.

Over the last five years, officers displayed their weapons on campus 16 times and off campus 10 times.

Most of the officers said they had never had a student try to get their weapons, and on those rare occasions, the student was not successful.

The officers use holsters designed to prevent an intruder from gaining access, Chief Dotson said. The guns are equipped with primary and secondary releases, and officers are required to train with the weapon once a year.

Unlike Philadelphia, which has walk-through metal detectors at its middle and high schools, Houston uses only handheld detectors on students, if administrators suspect they may be carrying a weapon.

In addition to guns, the officers also carry an expandable baton and foam that acts as pepper spray. Of the weapons, they have used the batons most often on campus - 34 times over five years, the district said. They have fired the foam seven times on campus.

The on-campus use of weapons over the last five years was greatest last school year, with 16 uses or displays.

Since September, police have handcuffed or restrained students 113 times. A new law that took effect Sept. 1 requires school police departments to keep a record of the times they handcuff and detain students.

Educators in Houston say they are not bothered by having an armed officer.

"You can have any intruder who comes on the campus," said Deirdre Sharkey, principal of Attucks Middle School. "Just for security and safety overall, I feel like the campus officer should have a gun."

Police as enforcers

The officers - accompanied by Reno, a Dutch shepherd specially trained to detect drugs, weapons, and explosives - stop at Room 303, a science class. It's one of two classrooms randomly chosen to be searched on this Monday afternoon at Lee High, a 1,600-student school in a hardscrabble neighborhood ridden with gang rivalry, notably the Southwest Cholos and MS-13 out of El Salvador.

"I need everybody to empty your pockets," school police officer Paul Crosser tells the class. "ID on your desks. Backpack. Everything out of your pocket."

"Everything?" one student asks, looking bewildered.

"Everything," Crosser says. "Cellphones, wallets, money, love letters, you name it."

Students file out of the room and line up against the wall. They aren't permitted to talk or use the restroom.

Into the room romps Reno. The dog leaps up on the long table, trotting from backpack to backpack and sniffing. Soon, he sits in front of one.

"That's an alert," calls out the K-9 officer Stephanie Clinton, searching the items to find the student's name.

Crosser, 48, orders the teen to come into the classroom.

With Reno by his backpack, the 16-year-old enters the classroom.

"Is this your stuff?" Clinton asks.

He nods.

"The canine alerted to it. Let the officers search you over there."

Crosser asks him to take off his socks and shoes, then frisks him.

Clinton doesn't find anything in the backpack and figures it may have been exposed to marijuana smoke recently.

"If you hang around with people who smoke, you need to tell the officers right now," Clinton warns.

"I hang around with people who smoke," the boy says.

"When?" Clinton asks.

"Last week," he says.

Crosser finishes searching.

"Go back outside, and you're not to discuss this with anybody," Crosser tells him.

Two other students also are called in for searches. The officers confiscate a lighter from one, examine his tattoo, and ask him about gangs.

The search uncovers no illegal drugs or paraphernalia, but it serves as a chilling warning to students on what can happen if they bring drugs or weapons into the school.

In Pennsylvania, police can use dogs to search students' personal belongings if there is "reasonable suspicion" of crime. Dogs can sniff lockers if students have been warned in advance.

Houston's practice wouldn't fly here.

"It's a violation of people's privacy, unless there is some suspicion that there's a problem with a particular group of students," said Harold Jordan, a community organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia.

Lee principal Xochitl Rodriguez-Davila supports the dog searches.

"If students make poor decisions and bring marijuana or things they shouldn't bring to school," she said, "then, for the safety of the rest of us here on campus, we need to be aware of it."

More than policing

School police officer Manuel Moctezuma arrives at Roberto Piñon's house.

The ninth grader had missed some or all of 17 days of school at Davis High this year, and it was only Oct 10. As Davis' truancy officer, Moctezuma needed to find out why. (In Philadelphia, school workers - not police - visit the homes of truant students.)

Maria Piñon, 24, Roberto's sister, answers the door.

"These are all the days we show him being absent, unexcused," Moctezuma says. "You need to let him know he can be fined. We're trying to avoid that."

Piñon says her brother is having a problem: "He was skipping classes because there were some guys bullying him and saying that they wanted to beat him up."

Moctezuma looks surprised. Roberto didn't report that to a police officer.

" 'Cause he said he didn't want to be a snitch," Piñon explained. "I think they were gang members."

Moctezuma tells Piñon to have her mother visit the school as soon as possible, "so we can talk to her and take care of that situation."

At the 1,600-student Davis High, principal Jaime Castaneda is so pleased with the work of school police officers that he has reached into his high school budget to pay for two additional officers. (The district pays for the first.)

He credits Moctezuma with helping shrink the school's dropout rate. It went from 18 percent in 2006 to 3.4 percent in 2010, the best in the district.

"Basically, they control the building," Castaneda said of his officers. "They enforce the law. They mentor. They counsel. They look at the whole kid."

At a recent assembly, the student body gave officers a standing ovation.

"To me, that was a real indication of what our school thinks of our police officers. It kind of made me jealous," Castaneda quipped.

The role of officers varies depending on the officer and the principal.

At some schools, officers help check in students who are late. They respond to profanity and minor disruptions in the classroom. Other cops get involved only in incidents deemed criminal activity.

All the officers patrol in and out of the schools and handle arrests.

Some days are slow; others are busy.

"On Friday, I didn't get to eat lunch until 3," said Rodolfo Silva, 38, an officer at Davis.

The school had several substitute teachers that day who called for assistance, he said. He also arrested a teenage trespasser, likely there to help a cousin fight, Silva said.

The former city cop moved to schools because he wanted to work with youth.

"I like being involved in kids' lives," Silva said, "trying to guide them the right way."

Silva was featured recently on CNN for his role as a youth boxing coach. One of his female prospects, whom he has trained since age 11, has qualified for the 2012 Olympics, the first to allow females to compete in boxing.

A Houston Golden Glove himself, Silva agreed to train the girl if she kept her grades up and behaved.

"She fell in love with the sport so much that she did a total 180 and graduated president of her class."

Nearly half his job at Davis involves mentoring, he said.

"We get a lot of knocks on that door from students asking for advice."

That morning, a female student sought out Silva's partner, Patrick Haywood, 39, for advice on an older man who had been sexually harassing her at work. Another asked how to become a police officer.

Senior Cristina Guerrero, 17, said students felt safer with the officers and enjoyed interacting with them.

"They're superfriendly," she said, "and they get along with us and laugh with us."

Back at school, Moctezuma learns that Roberto has shown up for class. Moctezuma calls him to the office. They are joined by Silva and assistant principal Brandy Johnston.

"I just came from your house," Moctezuma tells the teen. "Your sister gave us some information that I think we need to talk about."

Roberto denies he has been bullied.

Johnston sees that he has missed some classes repeatedly.

"What's going on in geography?" she asks. "Is somebody bothering you?"

"Nothing like that," Roberto says. "In those classes, I don't feel comfortable. I'm behind, and I can't catch up."

Roberto's mother, Juanita Trego, arrives. She confirms through an interpreter that Roberto has been bullied and that he sneaks out at night.

Principal Castaneda said later that he would get Roberto into a program for at-risk students.

When to arrest

The call came in: disruptive student throwing chairs.

"Yeah, this is Unit 8. I'm en route," officer Landrum Price, a math teacher-turned-school cop, says as he hurries out of the principal's conference room.

Taking two, sometimes three, steps at a time, he hurried to an upper floor of Attucks Middle School, where he found the sixth grader with an angry scowl.

"Son, why are you throwing chairs?"

The 11-year-old explained in a whiny voice that a much bigger seventh grader had been "bullying" him.

Price shook his head.

"But you were throwing chairs. You cannot be throwing chairs inside the school. That's unacceptable. Period."

Another teacher showed up and told Price that no one had been bullying the boy: "He just freaked out."

"All right, come on, son," Price said, putting his arm around the boy.

Price, 45, said he would turn the boy over to administrators for discipline.

Under a new law in Texas, sixth-grade students or younger can no longer be cited or arrested for disorderly conduct or other lesser offenses, only for assault and higher-level crimes.

For older students, discretion on arrests largely lies with the officer, in consultation with the district attorney's office and school administrators.

Sometimes, principals get upset when an officer won't arrest, but Chief Dotson tells the officers to hold firm.

"We always tell them, If you're going to err, err on the side of caution," he said. "We don't want to have to be the gateway to the criminal justice system for our students."

Before officers make an arrest, they call the district attorney's office and ask if the charge will be accepted.

In Philadelphia, school cops call city police, who decide whether to take a student into custody, though the district attorney has the ultimate say in whether charges will be filed.

Houston officers use arrests in cases of aggravated assault, robbery, and other serious offenses. For minor incidents, such as disruption of class, officers often issue students a citation.

"Disruption of school activities," for example, carries a $380 fine, similar to the penalty for running a red light.

Officers can also issue citations for offenses like disorderly conduct. A judge can then dismiss them or require community service or probation. School police can also issue written warnings.

At Attucks, a 450-student school in a largely poor, black neighborhood known as Sunnyside, few incidents this year have resulted in arrest.

As of Oct. 11, Price had made three and issued one citation. Two were outstanding bench warrants. In the third, a disruptive eighth grader was arrested for cursing out a teacher and then evading Price when the officer came to assist. The citation was for fighting.

Last year, he arrested nine and issued about 30 citations, he said. The year before, his first at Attucks, was the most difficult. He had five felonies in one week, he recalled.

"It has been a tough battle," he said.

The protocol on arrests is clear, Price and Attucks principal Sharkey said.

Assaults and drugs are "nonnegotiables," said Sharkey. They result in arrest.

"Pretty much when you get into criminal mischief," she said, "Officer Price calls the D.A. to see if it is an allowable arrest."

Who's in charge?

At Yates, Kiera Turner, 18, is telling Officer Demby that she has been threatened. "I can't go back," she says.

"You're correct," he replies.

"It's like I'm running," Turner tells him.

The teen left her home in Louisiana because of differences with her family. She came to Houston to stay with a friend of her cousin's.

But now, that living situation has grown menacing, she confided to school counselor Temeka Jeffery, who summoned Demby for help.

Demby calls Turner's grandmother in Baton Rouge to see if Turner can return home. The teen cries. She doesn't want to go back, she tells him.

Demby hands the phone to school counselor Jeffery and rubs Turner's shoulder.

"Your grandmother says you're a hardhead," he tells her in a low, soft voice, tapping her forehead. "Is that true?"

Demby suggests a homeless shelter. She says no.

"We've got to get you out of here and make a fresh start," Demby says.

Jeffery said she was relieved to be able to call on Demby.

"It's always great to hear two sides," she said. "The counselors are the warm and fuzzy. The officers are cutting-edge, straight to the point."

While helping Turner, Demby was summoned by another administrator enrolling a student from a disciplinary school. The administrator wanted the boy, 15, to hear the school rules from Demby.

The teen had been in trouble for "excessive fighting" at his former school and has said he knows gang members.

The teen's grandmother, Patricia Graham, made a face at her grandson's admission.

"Please don't get involved with that. Please," Demby told the boy. "I'm going to do my job. I just want you to know: I will communicate with your grandmother."

He tells the teen he will write him a ticket if he catches him smoking pot at the local Burger King after school. On the second offense, he says, he'll lock the teen up.

"We're trying to be sure you're successful," Demby said. "The only way you're going to be successful is if you stay out of the mix."

Graham said she was grateful for Demby's warning.

"There's a lot of stuff going on," she said, "and he seems to be really concerned."

The National Outlook

School districts large and smaller use armed police in some form. A17.

A Tale of Two School Districts

Houston schools have fewer assaults,

but they arrest students more often. A16.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or

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