- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

D.C. public schools, which have endured criticism and scrutiny of their security, continue to struggle with guards fraternizing with students and radios that cannot communicate, community and school leaders say.

Their concerns are being aired on the heels of eight government audits highlighting problems in school security in the past few years and last year’s takeover of school security operations by the Metropolitan Police Department.

“It’s kind of ridiculous to walk in at 4:30 [p.m.] and see everything wide open,” Cathy Reilly, director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, testified Friday during a D.C. Council hearing on school security. “There’s nobody there.”

Marlene Berlin, a member of Wilson High School’s local restructuring team, said the transition of security from the school system to the police department “has not gone very well, frankly.”

Security officers “flow in and out of the school” without the principal being notified, and some officers refuse to deploy under the principal’s orders, said Miss Berlin, who was testifying on behalf of Principal Stephen P. Tarason.

“Teachers are concerned about the level of fraternization between security officers and students,” she said.

Friday’s oversight hearing was convened by council members Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Libraries and Recreation Committee, and Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Assistant Metropolitan Police Chief Gerald Wilson, who oversees school security, said he has not heard any complaints about guards fraternizing with students since the department took over security last year.

“We want the security personnel to be mentors, to get to know the young people,” Chief Wilson said. “They’re going to have to have some type of cordial conversation. Is that fraternization? I don’t know.”

Chief Wilson defended his department’s role, saying schools now operate in a “safe, stable manner.”

The hundreds of security guards in the school system are privately employed through D.C.-based Hawk One Security Inc., but the police department supervises them.

Hawk One officials did not testify at the hearing, and the company did not respond to phone messages yesterday.

Several members of the D.C.-based nonprofit Peaceoholics Inc. testified about concerns over school security arrangements.

Chief Wilson noted several successful measures since the police took over security, such as new youth advisory councils, a gang inventory and daily conference calls to discuss school security involving officials from the school system, the police department and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

In addition, Chief Wilson said, officers more closely scrutinize security personnel to ensure they don’t have criminal backgrounds or positive drug tests, noting that more than 50 people have been disqualified from working on the contract.

A report by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General last year found that some guards were certified by the police department, despite having criminal records that should have disqualified them.

A recurring problem has been the inability of contract security guards to communicate with police officers, Miss Reilly said.

“Radios and walkie-talkies can’t talk to each other,” she said. “They’re just not coordinated. … It’s an expensive problem, but it’s crucial.”

Thomas Brady, chief business administrator for the school system, said officials have applied for a $500,000 homeland security grant for radio equipment.

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