YORK, Pa. (AP) - When Marcelina Brown walks into school, her mornings start like this: She waits in a line of her peers, takes out her phone and keys and walks through a metal detector. She puts her backpack on a side table so it can be opened and searched.
Between classes, as she weaves her way up and down staircases where hand-drawn posters adorn the walls (“Don’t Count the Days, Make the Days Count”), she and her friends pass by body armor-wearing school police officers who carry Tasers and handcuffs.
Security cameras, about 160 of them, are trained on students from above, and in the back of a small first-floor room nearby, a camera technician watches with a careful eye in real time.
But none of this is weird to the 18-year-old William Penn Senior High School student. It’s so part of her regular school life that each time she hears one particular officer walking down a hallway, she shouts out: “Britney!”
And Britney Brooks calls back: “Beauty!”
That, after all, is what everyone calls Brown.
“It’s not like they’re really cops to us. They’re not cops to us,” Brown said. “They care about us.”
Talk to most at York City School District and this is exactly what administrators hope their officers are doing.
A district-wide school force with 15 officers, with at least one in all the schools, is less keen on making arrests and more designed to build rapport with students to prevent something bad from transpiring. They’re designed to contain a threat like a school shooter but they wear many other hats: surrogate mom and lunch lady, as Brooks put it.
While a school police force is mostly unheard of across York County districts, it’s not uncommon across the state and country, some say. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said it does not track the number of schools who have police forces.
And with conversations more and more turning toward school security both locally and nationally, taking steps like implementing metal detectors and hiring a school police force might be options districts are considering.
Since the Feb. 14 Florida shooting, there have been over a dozen school threats in York County. Experts say the majority of people who make them don’t intend to carry them out. Maddie Crocenzi, York Daily Record
Last month’s school shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, sparked debate about tougher gun laws with conversation also turning to additional measures to keep schools safe.
Just this week, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his office plans to take a deep dive on safety procedures at schools across the state.
In central Pennsylvania, recent threats that shut down Central York schools and cropped up at other districts compounded an already tense time for students and parents.
“The Parkland shooting raised everybody’s sensitivity level,” said Michael Muldrow, the chief of York City’s school police department. “The Central threats made it over the top. It brought it even more home for local parents. Everybody was nervous.”
Muldrow said that as a result of the Central York threats, he decided to screen students with metal detectors at the district’s K-8 schools and do bag searches. That’s not normal protocol. High school students deal with the screenings every day, but lower school students only have checks on random days.
“We did it for our parents,” Muldrow said. “They were calling in…’Hey, how do we know something bad like that can’t happen here?’”
Britney Brooks, an officer with the York City School District’s police department, says her department’s community policing efforts show that police have a place in schools. Chris Dunn, York Daily Record
Muldrow thinks other districts need to first have a conversation about employing a school resource officer who would have a firearm in school. Some York County schools already do that.
But if schools aren’t going to be comfortable with that, the next conversation needs to be about screenings, metal detectors and putting audible alarms on exterior doors, Muldrow said.
The school police chief said he’s fielded calls and emails from other districts in York County and beyond, in Pennsylvania. He wants to know from them: “What is your community and staff comfortable with?”
‘Pens, whistles, and good intentions’
The city district spends over $1 million on school security, according to Muldrow, out of a total budget of roughly $137.7 million.
School police officers are equipped with enough to meet a threat inside the school and hold it at bay. They carry Tasers and pepper spray. They also wear body cameras.
Soon, they will also carry non-lethal pepper ball pistols that can work to contain a threat like a school shooter from 150 feet away instead of 15 feet.
The Taser and pepper ball weapon are not used to break up student fights or deal with parents acting disorderly at a game, Muldrow said. The chief described them as “be all to end all” weapons, used to stop an active shooter or knife-wielding person.
That wasn’t always the case.
In 2009, the district formed a safety team that Muldrow said understood that “York can be a tough community, like any city.”
“We were armed with pens, whistles, and good intentions,” Muldrow said. “We were civilians so everything we did with respect to intervention was what a teacher could do or what a hall monitor could do. We were responding to everything. We were locking buildings down.”
Today, his officers still intervene. In criminal cases, they handle charges that are summaries and citations. They go to York City Police for felony and misdemeanor cases.
His police team is also backed up by security cameras. There are about 160 in the high school alone.
In the back of a room marked in the hallway “Police Probation,” a woman named Val Handy was monitoring a bank of video camera feeds on a recent Thursday morning.
She sits at a large rectangular desk with a computer monitor and several TV screens built into a framework in front of her. Each displays several camera feeds from “Building A,” Building B,” ”Building C.”
Her radio crackles: “Second floor pool lobby. We got kids hanging out here. Could someone check that out?”
Handy relays the message to a school police officer or hall monitor who will then go check it out and get the kids back to class or wherever they’re supposed to be.
Next to Handy’s desk, two more screens display feeds from exterior building cameras. One screen blinks red and beeps each time a door opens.
A school police officer, Lt. Quinn Johnson, clicked the blinking red button and a live camera feed popped up on the second computer screen. There, he could see who opened the door to come or go.
This is all happening in real time and is what Muldrow thinks sets York apart from other schools who also have security cameras.
“If you have 100 cameras in your building and nobody’s ever watching them…it’s not preventative,” he said.
He continued: “You come outside this building in a black hoodie and a long rifle, we’re gonna know that there’s a guy in a black hoodie and a long rifle outside the building. That response is going to kick in from there. It’s not after he’s already broken into the building. It’s not after he gets somebody to let him in. It’s not after he shoots out a window and rakes it in and pulls the door open and starts shooting.”
But for students like Brown, it’s how she gets along with the police officers on a day-to-day basis that really resonates.
Brown’s older brother, Isaiah Ritter, was shot earlier this year. It happened around 1 a.m. and Brown was up all night and into the morning calling her mom and watching her younger siblings. She went back to school a couple days later.
Her brother is doing fine and out of the hospital, but on her first day back to school, Brown said she tried to keep her head down. The shooting had been on the news and everyone knew what happened.
Officer Brooks heard, too.
She sent out an email to her fellow officers and Brown’s teachers.
If a teacher saw she was not doing well, send her to one of us, Brooks instructed.
Throughout that first school day back, Brown’s teachers and school officers asked her how she was doing. One pulled her out of music class to ask her: how’s everything going? Are you OK?
It was a relief, Brown said. Her day had felt like she was walking on ice. Students knew and were staring at her. Her teachers and the officers helped.
“They really care,” Brown said.
It’s a recognition by the officers and staff that they know when a student is having a bad day.
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com
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