- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

Two D.C. public school principals yesterday testified that incompetent security guards are not fired, but instead reassigned within the school system, and a PTA member said some guards fraternize with the students they are hired to protect.

The testimony came during a D.C. Council hearing that probed the school system’s multimillion-dollar contract with Watkins Security Inc., which has come under scrutiny since the shooting death of a student inside a Southeast high school last month.

“They really don’t come with any kind of skills to deal with conflict,” Cardozo High School Principal Reginald Ballard said of some private security guards at his school. “They’re afraid of the students they have to deal with.”

Steve Tarason, principal of Wilson High School, said he recently asked that two security guards be removed from his school because “one slept a lot and another one was afraid of the students.”

However, Mr. Tarason and Mr. Ballard said such guards rarely are fired, but routinely reassigned to other schools.

“They go somewhere else,” Mr. Ballard said. “I know when I’m getting someone, I’m getting someone else’s problem.”

The administrators’ complaints came as the D.C. Office of the Inspector General continues to review the school system’s $45.6 million contract with Watkins Security, a District-based firm owned by former Metropolitan Police Detective Richard Hamilton.

Acting interim Inspector General Austin A. Andersen took the unusual step yesterday of making public several of his agency’s findings on the contract before issuing a formal report.

Mr. Anderson told council members that city investigators have found security lapses in a survey of 14 schools throughout the District. The problems his staff uncovered include unguarded doors, broken security cameras and a lack of guards.

The public school system “needs to contract with a security firm that can provide a professional, well-trained guard force in providing security,” Mr. Andersen said. “In addition, the security contractor’s performance must be continually monitored with contract incentives and payments tied to improvements in school security.”

An employee for Watkins Security reached by phone last night said company officials were not available for comment.

The school system’s contract with Watkins Security came under scrutiny after the Feb. 2 fatal shooting of Ballou High School student James Richardson, 17. Thomas Boykin, 18, is charged in the teen’s death, reportedly using a gun that was smuggled past school security guards.

Students, parents and community activists testified that Ballou isn’t the only school in the 65,000-student system with serious security concerns.

Wendy Glenn Flood, vice president of the Eastern High School PTA, said some guards at that school socialize with students, including several who have taken students to school dances.

“I saw a whole lot of fraternizing with the students,” she said of a recent trip to the school.

Miss Flood also said as many as 80 students typically leave the school’s campus to have lunch, even though the school’s policy bars students from leaving the grounds.

The revelations disturbed council members as they consider whether to transfer oversight of security in the schools to the Metropolitan Police Department — a proposal that most parents, students and school officials who testified yesterday said they oppose.

“This isn’t just bad security,” said council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, a vocal critic of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ proposal to transfer security oversight to the police department. “This is inept security. They’re doing a lousy job.”

Mr. Fenty said city officials should demand better oversight of the security contract rather than transferring power to the police.

Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, said D.C. school administrators are ultimately responsible for security problems.

“If it’s tragedy that leads to this proposal, then maybe it’s tragedy that leads to [the school system] doing its job,” Mr. Chavous said.

Meanwhile, officials at the Office of Inspector General said they are concerned with the current security plans.

William DiVello, assistant inspector general for audits, said the school system officials might not have received the most technically superior — or even the most affordable — contractor when they picked Watkins Security in July to provide more than 300 private guards in city schools.

“There is enough that is unusual about this contract to make us look further,” Mr. Andersen added.

The school system has been paying Watkins Security through a series of seven “letter contracts” worth a little less than $1 million each since July. D.C. law requires that the council approve all contracts worth at least $1 million in the same contract year.

However, Mr. DiVello said the school system has paid out at least $11.4 million in inappropriate letter contracts.

School officials told council members they’re conducting an internal audit to determine why school contracting officers never sought council approval for the Watkins contract.

Theodore Tuckson, director of security for the school system, said Watkins Security officials are responsible for training guards and for determining which guards to post in the schools.

The latest letter contract with Watkins Security lasts until April 13. Mr. Tuckson, who opposes a police takeover of the school security system, said he plans to meet with police Chief Charles H. Ramsey today to discuss whether to extend that contract.

Meanwhile, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said Mr. Williams has allocated $4 million in the capital budget to safeguard school entrances and to upgrade security equipment.

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