- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

D.C. high school students said yesterday that more city police officers should be inside public schools, instead of the private security guards who are protecting their classmates and teachers.

“The police are trained to do the job,” said Renee Prather-Hairston of Wilson Senior High in Northwest. “If students are doing what they are supposed to do, the police pose no threat.”

Renee, 17, was among 120 students from 12 D.C. public high schools yesterday who discussed the issue and other civic concerns as part of the annual YMCA D.C. Youth and Government Legislative Weekend at American University.

Francisco Chavarria, of Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School on Florida Avenue in Northwest, also wants more police officers in schools and said security guards need better training if they are going to continue to do the job.

“There are students at Cesar Chavez who have drugs,” said Francisco, 15. “I’ve seen a student with a knife in school.”

Though students and civic leaders yesterday had varying opinions about police in schools, the fatal shooting last year inside Ballou High School in Southeast was for most a defining moment in the call for change.

On Feb. 2, 2004, Thomas J. Boykin, 19, got a gun inside the school and fatally shot classmate James Richardson, 17. Boykin pleaded guilty Thursday to voluntary manslaughter. Sentencing is scheduled for June 16. Prosecutors say Boykin faces up to 65 years in prison.

Capt. Keith Williams of the Metropolitan Police Department was among those who participated in yesterday’s discussions and called the Ballou incident a “galvanizing force” behind the agency’s newly formed School Safety Division.

The D.C. Council passed a measure in November that effective July 1 will give the police department control over school contract security guards.

“We will recruit and train” the security guards, he said. “That’s what that bill did.”

Capt. Williams said the changes will include extensive background checks for the guards and training by the police department.

“There is certain criteria they must meet,” he said. Safety “will improve because the Metropolitan Police Department will be accountable.”

Security for D.C. schools is provided by Watkins Security Agency of D.C. Inc.

The contract with the company was set to expire Jan. 7, but the D.C. Council approved emergency legislation in December to retain it until at least June.

The decision came despite a report by city auditors last summer that found the firm to be the “least technically competent” and most expensive among five bidders, The Washington Times reported.

Watkins was first hired on a three-year contract in 2003, but school officials failed to seek D.C. Council approval as required by city contracting law, so the company has been paid through a series of short-term contracts.

According to the inspector general, school officials overpaid the company by as much as $8.8 million when picking it over the other bidders for a three-year, $45.6 million contract in 2003.

The council resolution stated the contract was extended to avoid a disruption in services.

According to a report released in September by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General, some of the Watkins Security guards are inexperienced and fraternize with students.

The report also stated security cameras in the schools often do not work and school doors routinely are left unlocked.

A Watkins Security official said at the time the company had received no reports of guards fraternizing with students. The company yesterday declined further comment.

The report also stated that doors at some entrances at Ballou High School had alarms, but that students had disabled them and that school administrators have not updated security strategies in nearly 10 years.

Bruce Johnson, who attends the School Without Walls in Northwest, was one of the many students who lined up to ask questions of Capt. Williams.

He wanted to know if more police in schools would result in a conflict between administrators and officers.

“We understand that principals are the bosses of the buildings,” Capt. Williams answered. “While the police realize that the principals are not their bosses, the principals are in charge.”

Professor Sarah Stiles, the program’s director and the director of the American University’s Leadership Program in the School of Public Affairs, said there could not have been a more relevant issue than school security.

“The students ignited,” she said. “I got a very good feeling that the students were happy to have a dialogue with a person in charge. These students are some of the most thoughtful, civic-minded in the District public school system. … They’re so worried, so scared. That’s why I think this was the most salient issue to bring to them.”

Some city police officers, known as school resource officers, are in junior and senior high schools, learning centers and a few elementary schools.

William Lopez, 17, who attends Wilson Senior High School, said the police presence at his school has made a difference.

“Last year, there were a lot of fights between the punks and the blacks,” William said. “And I have not seen any of that this year. I wasn’t concerned for my own safety, but I was concerned for my fellow Hispanics.”

He said the Ballou shooting was “very stressful.”

“I always thought it could happen to us,” said William. “We had an incident with a student and a gun during a fire drill.”

He said his school has a minimum of three police officers he sees regularly. A police cruiser is always outside of the school.

“That brings a sense of security to me and my parents as well, knowing that I am not in danger,” he said. “I’m an advocate for police presence in the schools.”

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