Training, screening overhaul proposed

Everett Gillison during a news conference at City Hall in October. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Everett Gillison during a news conference at City Hall in October. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)

After an Inquirer report on school police, Philadelphia has developed a plan. Unlike 8 of 10 big cities, it stops short at arming them.

Posted: November 06, 2011

Philadelphia's top public-safety official plans to recommend that the school district overhaul how it hires and trains school police, but says arming them is an issue that needs more discussion.

Everett Gillison, the deputy mayor for public safety and Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, said in an interview that school police - like regular city police - should be trained for 32 weeks at the Police Academy and go through the same drug and criminal-background screening.

Under the proposal, which would likely have to be approved by the School Reform Commission, prospective officers also would have to undergo psychological evaluations and take a polygraph test.

The current force of 400-plus school officers did not have to undergo such scrutiny, except the background checks. They received just four weeks of training.

Gillison's proposal was developed after an Inquirer report last month identified more than a dozen school officers with arrest records for assault, drugs, and other crimes and with disciplinary problems.

One officer, who had been in a diversion program for drug dependency, was arrested a second time for cocaine possession. She showed up for her hearing in uniform.

She was subsequently laid off with other per diem officers. The school district has since suspended without pay another officer, who was sought on an active bench warrant. And it is reviewing the cases of two others.

Gillison said he would like to "raise the bar" and see school officers get even more education than provided at the Police Academy, including sensitivity training and information on how to deal with adolescents.

"In order to have a safe environment," he said, "you have to have people who have the proper training, certification, psychological disposition, the proper understanding of their role, and the right temperament."

Michael Lodise, president of the officers' union, has called for more screening and training.

"They're finally listening to me," he said.

"We look forward to the recommendations," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said. "We're hoping to have a conversation on any ideas that would allow us to continue to improve the school police force in the district."

Gillison said he understood the district's dire fiscal challenges and conceded that it would have to weigh how much change it could afford. Despite large-scale cutbacks, the district is still trying to close a $629 million budget gap.

And the district is in the midst of a sweeping leadership change - it has an acting superintendent, and the SRC is almost completely remade. Nutter approves two of the five SRC members.

"Trying to do change and public safety in that environment is a serious challenge," Gillison said. "We have to be mindful of that. Going to 32 or 35 or 38 weeks of training is a huge commitment."

It's unclear how this would affect current school police officers. Some have been screened and trained in prior police jobs.

Gillison also said that increased hiring and training rules would not solve all the problems.

"We do this with the Philadelphia Police Department, and we still have problems," he noted. "What you have to have is a system that will allow you to say that, when there's a problem, you can get rid of the people."

Since January 2009, 44 city police officers have been arrested.

Gillison said more than 70 city police have already been assigned to schools, although they report to the police district office.

More discussion is needed, he said, on whether to arm some or all school police, once they are academy-trained.

Arrest rates are a concern for some groups, including the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union.

"We agree that all students have a right to feel safe in their schools, but placing armed police officers in schools will not promote that goal," the groups wrote in July to Nutter.

"By increasing the likelihood of interactions with law enforcement earlier and more often, it may actually accelerate the school-to-prison pipeline and negatively impact long-term outcomes for our city's youth."

Shelly Yanoff, executive director of the Children and Youth group, said school police needed to be screened better and trained more on youth psychology and to learn de-escalation techniques.

But Yanoff doesn't favor police in schools - even unarmed: "I don't think we need to have our schools turn into penitentiaries."


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder

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

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