Camden schools chief announces new student safety strategy

Posted: March 01, 2014

CAMDEN Lorenz Bethea, 17, takes her one-mile walk to school pretty quickly. With no one on the streets in the early morning and a 10-block walk, "it's a long stretch if something were to happen," she said.

Once inside Woodrow Wilson High School, she said, it's common to start her day weaving through fights in the hallways.

"Sometimes it just feels like this isn't school," Bethea said. "Sometimes it's chaos, it's a party all the time."

On Thursday, in a move to make Bethea and all city students safer, Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced a five-point safety plan for the district where, last year, 50 percent of students reported feeling unsafe and violent incidents in schools climbed from 138 to 163.

At the same time - echoing President Obama's call to abandon zero-tolerance policies because they are often enforced inequitably - Rouhanifard said he wants to reduce unnecessary police calls and arrests while still ensuring that incidents are accurately reported to the state.

"We shouldn't call police for every incident at a school," he said.

There have been reports of police being called in because a student passed an Advil pill to a friend, and for minor outbursts or verbal confrontations.

The president recently called on the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department to issue new guidelines for school discipline.

"Schools should be secured from the outside in," Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said after Thursday's news conference at Wilson. "We don't want to militarize hallways of the schools, and slapping handcuffs on a kid at school is the last thing we ever want to do."

Also at the event were members of the advisory school board and Mayor Dana L. Redd.

"It is all of our responsibility to come together to support public safety, making our schools safer places and creating the safe corridors that our children deserve," Redd said.

Rouhanifard, who was appointed in August to lead the state-run district, said he taught at one of the 12 most dangerous schools in New York City during his tenure with Teach for America. His students would often opt to eat in his classroom rather than go to the cafeteria out of fear, he said.

"Safety is a basic condition that we owe our students, and if they don't feel safe, they're not going to be focused on their lessons," Rouhanifard said.

The safety plan involves installing more security cameras - as many as 100 in Woodrow Wilson, where there are 82 exits - and providing access ID cards to students.

It would create a "Youth Justice Task Force" to mediate among students; provide advanced training for security officers on specific duties and reporting practices; and revise building emergency plans.

Some of the initiatives have taken effect, including safe corridors, a program launched in the fall that now incorporates safe havens at all of the fire stations in the city for any student who feels unsafe en route to or from school.

A detailed map with eight zones and suggested pathways where police have increased their presence will be sent home with students next week and is posted on the district website.

Rouhanifard said he would also aim to improve lighting, and loop in members of the community to serve as "parent rangers" along the routes.

According to police data, officers made 36 arrests at Camden schools in 2013 - 31 percent curfew-related, 22 percent for drugs, 14 percent for disorderly conduct, and 11 percent for assault.

Camden schools reported among the highest numbers of violent incidents in the state. Camden was also one of a few districts to see its incident numbers increase from the 2011-12 school year, though state and local officials have attributed that to more diligent reporting.

In the state Department of Education's annual "Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse in School" report, which depends on districts' self-reporting, every category but weapons offenses rose in the Camden district.

Violent incidents jumped from 138 in 2011-12 to 163. The district had reported just 10 incidents in 2009-10 and 22 in 2010-11, drawing criticism that it was not reporting all incidents.

Then in 2012-13, the district reported 109 harassment, intimidation, and bullying incidents compared with 35 the year before.

The statistics, however, don't always tell the whole story, according to some officials.

A simple shove in a hallway could qualify as an assault, Thomson noted.

Keith Waters, a counselor at Wilson, and the adviser for the club Students Against Violence Everywhere, said many times peer mediation can provide the answer.

"We don't have a lot of serious issues here. They are conflicts, interpersonal issues, a boyfriend broke up with a girlfriend," Waters said. "We're not a persistently dangerous school."

Bethea said the presentation left her optimistic, though she will be long graduated by the time all of the improvements are implemented.

She also added that it is possible for students to succeed in the district despite its challenges.

"More than three of us are college-ready," said Bethea, referring to a recent assessment that as few as three students in the district had scored high enough on tests to be deemed ready for college.

"I'll probably be the valedictorian," said Bethea, who's at the top of her class.

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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