What other school districts are doing around the country

Posted: November 06, 2011

Of the nation's 10 largest cities, eight use armed police in some form. And in the ninth city, New York, officers receive far more training and scrutiny prior to hiring.

Five of those city school districts - San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio - employ their own police officers, who receive comparable training to regular city police.

Chicago, Phoenix, and the San Jose Unified School District base city police officers in some of their buildings. In the case of San Jose, the officers are not in uniform, but rather dress casually in polo shirts and conceal their weapons.

In New York - the nation's largest school system - the city police department's school-safety division staffs the schools with unarmed officers who receive 14 weeks of training, intensive background scrutiny, and drug and character screening. (Armed precinct-based officers, however, also come into the schools.)

The nation's largest cities are by no means alone.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban districts, surveyed members in 2004 and found that 29 of 37 respondents indicated its officers were armed. Las Vegas, Miami, and Indianapolis are among other bigger districts with their own police forces.

Smaller cities, such as Allentown, too, rely on armed officers, provided by the local city police department. Allentown recently announced it was considering hiring additional officers.

Even some smaller suburban schools, such as Abington's high school and junior high, have "school resource officers," who belong to the local police department. As integral members of the school staff, they teach law-related topics, serve as mentors, and focus on prevention, in addition to providing law enforcement.

"With all of these pieces," Abington Police Chief Bill Kelly said, "it can be a tremendously powerful experience."

The armed-officer model, however, has had its problems. In some districts, there have been tussles over authority between principals and police.

A 2005 report by the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a think tank in North Carolina, looked at 19 communities - big and small - with school resource officers. In one large community early on in its program, "the sheriff made it known that he was considering filing obstruction-of-justice charges against [a] principal who withheld information about an alleged rape," the report said.

At another large site, a principal attempted to prevent students in a gifted-and-talented program from being arrested for writing lewd graffiti.

Armed police also have been the subject of critical reports by the American Civil Liberties Union in several cities around the country. The ACLU asserts that school police operations are criminalizing behavior that warrants only discipline.

In 2010, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the City of New York. It seeks improved training relating to arrests, searches, and the use of force; better investigation of complaints against officers; and assurances that children won't be inappropriately or unlawfully arrested.

Some officials in Texas, too, are wondering if districts have gone too far.

"You have principals saying, 'Wait a minute. Slow down. We don't want this incident handled like this,' " said C.O. "Brad" Bradford, a former Houston police chief, who is on city council and has heard concerns from school administrators. " 'Johnny just pushed Anthony. What do you mean it's an assault?' "

They also are beginning to question the amount of education funding being funneled toward police and security. And they wonder whether some schools that rarely see serious crime need police.

"This is the question that is being asked in Texas, not so much whether they're armed or unarmed," said Deborah Fowler, deputy director for Texas Appleseed, a public-interest law center. "It's really a question of how many, and are we spending too much, given other cuts we're seeing to educational services?"

Texas Appleseed has noted an increase in criminal citations being issued to youth statewide since school districts created their own police departments.

Fowler said Texas youth received about 300,000 tickets last year - 120,000 for truancy. While the numbers don't specify the location for other offenses, her agency believes more than half are school-based.

Concerned about arrests of students, Clayton County, Ga., near Atlanta, tried a different approach.

The courts, the school district, the district attorney's office, and law enforcement agreed to cut back on arrests. Instead, they issued warnings and referred students to school-based programs for misdemeanors, rather than filing charges. The school system, which serves about 50,000 students, noted a 70 percent drop in weapons possession and a 72 percent decline in referrals to juvenile court, according to a Clayton juvenile court judge.

But others, including former Houston Mayor and Police Chief Lee Brown, say using armed police works well. Houston schools, Brown said, are safer since the school police force was created.

"It has the advantage of having the school police focus its attention on the schools and the immediate vicinity of the schools," said Brown, chief from 1982 to 1990 and mayor from 1998 to 2004. "The Houston Police Department can focus their attention on other issues in the city."

Councilman Bradford called for further discussion.

"This is an issue, in my view, for school boards in Houston and Texas and across America," he said, "to examine very, very closely."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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