Police posted to D.C. charter schools to help avert violence

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced Monday that the city had posted police at more than two dozen D.C. charter schools, further normalizing charters within city life and attempting to address a spate of violence that plagued some of the schools this fall.

But the plan -- which maintains the overall number of police dedicated to schools but spreads them among both charter and traditional public schools -- has some worried that all the schools will be shortchanged in the end.

Police haven't been posted to charters for several years, although they have a presence in other D.C. public schools. After after-school assaults and robberies near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station this fall, pressure mounted to give charter schools the same services as other schools.

"If you've followed education in D.C., . . . you know that the same challenges that exist in the traditional public schools exist in the public charter schools," said Fenty (D).

Nearly 100 police officers serve as school resource officers, receiving special training and spending their time posted in school hallways. Education advocates and police say those officers' presence can help ward off problems before they descend into violence.

That makes the new plan an especially important milestone for the city's charter schools, which have long complained of being given short shrift in city services, despite educating an ever-increasing chunk -- 38 percent this year -- of public school students.

Charter leaders expressed relief at the policy change.

"I take it as a positive sign," said Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. He called it "a small but important level of equity between two different parts of the D.C. school system."

The plan calls for using existing resources more thinly, increasing the number of police officers assigned to schools by three to 98 but spreading them among 88 schools, up from 60 when they were protecting only traditional public schools. Twenty-six charter schools will receive full- or part-time school resource officers, alongside 34 regular D.C. public schools. In a new approach, 28 other middle and high schools (23 charter and five traditional) will receive daily visits from roving officers.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said Monday that she didn't think anything would be lost with the new approach.

"I'm no fan of police officers fixed to buildings," she said. "The majority of issues we had were on the way to and from school. I don't think anyone's losing anything here."

Still, the police union expressed concerns about the policy change. Kristopher Baumann, who heads the D.C. Labor Committee for the local Fraternal Order of Police, said having the same number of officers covering additional buildings means an overall decreased police presence in schools.

"The math is the math," Baumann said. "We can only be in one place at one time."

Ron Moten, co-founder of Peaceoholics, a nonprofit group that works with at-risk youths in the District, agreed that police are needed in charter schools but added that spreading officers more thinly would inevitably have an effect. "It's a catch-22 situation," he said. "The charter schools need the same protection as the public schools, but it's going to have an impact on the safety of the [regular] schools."

Even with officers, schools can face difficulties with crime. At Friendship Collegiate Academy, the Northeast charter school where problems with violence around dismissal time inspired the policy change, two students were assaulted just outside the school last month, even though a police officer had already been splitting his time between the school and two other charters in the area in advance of Monday's permanent posting. Peggy Pendergrass, Friendship Collegiate's principal, said that dismissals have otherwise been quiet.

Staff writer Theola Labbé-DeBose contributed to this report.

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