D.C. charter schools put out a call for protection

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Principal Peggy Pendergrass heard it from a teacher who rushed in with the news: Three gang members were trying to force their way into Friendship Collegiate Academy, one more example of the violence that had plagued the high school in the weeks since classes started.

Her dean of security was at the door, wrestling with them as they tried to push into the building. After a struggle, the men gave up and retreated. By the time Pendergrass got to the walkway in front of the charter school in Northeast Washington, police were making arrests. But she wondered why charter schools, which enroll more than 38 percent of public school students in the city, don't get regular protection like that at traditional public schools, where about 100 officers walk the halls full time.

Charter advocates and legislators are asking themselves that question after a stretch of weeks at Friendship Collegiate in which at least eight students were assaulted or robbed after class, including one incident that sent a boy to a hospital, and several large melees broke out involving punching, kicking, and threats of gun violence. Boys and girls have gotten caught up in the problems. The same October week the school blocked the three gang members, it had to dismiss classes early one day after anonymous threats about shootings.

Violence diminished this month after police bolstered their afternoon presence in the area. But for the school -- which, at 1,232 students, is the largest charter school and the second-largest high school in the city -- that only deepens puzzlement over why police aren't routinely posted to charters in the first place.

Police officers in the schools, known as school resource officers, "know the streets and know the kids," Pendergrass said, although she acknowledged that they're not a panacea. Still, she said, the officers could do a lot to derail problems before they start.

She has a backer on the D.C. Council.

"You put the Metropolitan police officers on the street, and they're reacting to violence," said Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who oversees the police department. "You put the school resource officers in the school, and they are reducing the likelihood of violence," although he added that the officers aren't an answer for everything, pointing to the violence that occurs at traditional public schools.

"It's clearly a serious problem. In my view, a public school is entitled to public safety protection, regardless of whether it is a DCPS public school or a public charter school," he said.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in an interview that police respond to crime wherever it happens.

At least four officers now patrol the area near Friendship Collegiate by foot and bike every afternoon at dismissal time, and an officer checks in by phone daily. But there aren't enough police officers to permanently staff every school, she said.

"I think it's important for students to have positive interactions with police officers," Lanier said. But "I have to put officers where crime is occurring."

Lanier said she was not certain whether data showed that more crime was occurring in and around D.C. public schools than charter schools.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company