Assistant D.C. Police Chief Gerald M. Wilson admits he has been keeping a low profile. As the new head of security for the city's public schools, he has been tucked away doing homework.
That profile is about to change.
Wilson, the former chief in Prince George's County, has been on the job since April, but he did not want to present himself to the District before he could arm himself with substantive answers.
Wilson has started making the rounds, appearing before parents and new security guards, in preparation for Monday, the first day of school.
The D.C. Council voted last summer to give the police authority over school security after the fatal shooting of a student at Ballou Senior High School. The department took control July 1.
A two-year, $30 million contract with Hawk One Security Inc., a 20-year-old company based in the District, will place 296 security guards in city schools. Nearly 120 D.C. police officers will join them.
In interviews last week, Wilson displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the voluminous security contract, reciting passages like a preacher quoting Scripture at a Bible study meeting.
"I really needed to immerse myself in the contract," Wilson said, explaining his weeks of study before responding to community concerns.
A 42-year-old Glenarden native, Wilson spent 20 years in the Prince George's County Police Department, serving as acting chief before retiring in January 2004. He then joined the D.C. Protective Services for nearly a year before leaving for the D.C. police.
"I was basically handed the keys to a high-performance vehicle and was told not to wreck it," said Wilson, who moved to the District with his wife and three children. But that vehicle has had some performance problems.
Sixteen guards who worked in the school system last year failed to pass background checks, Wilson said. The city's inspector general reported in July that the D.C. police had allowed several guards with criminal records to work in schools.
The Hawk One guards have been subjected to background checks and continued drug testing. The guards and police officers are required to complete 40 hours of training in such issues as child development and conflict resolution and to pass an exam during an eight-hour refresher course, Wilson said.
Cherita Whiting, president of McKinley Tech High School's PTA, said she initially was skeptical about having the police department, rather than the school system, responsible for security. But her concerns have eased. "We wanted to make sure someone was going to be watching the contractor," Whiting said.
The police department established a school security division and asked officers previously assigned to schools to reapply to fill 99 positions. In addition, there will be 15 sergeants and three lieutenants.
The key to placing officers who can adapt to the flow and tempo of schools will be selecting those with the right temperament, Wilson said.
"Children are going to be loud and boisterous," Wilson said. "On the street, that's disorderly conduct. In the school, that's just a bad kid."
To better coordinate law enforcement involving students, school police officials plan to share information with street officers and the Metro Transit Police. That's designed to help authorities know when neighborhood rivalries might flow from the street to the schoolyard or onto Metro's buses and trains.
Earlier this month, about 200 parents and pupils gathered in the cavernous and ornate auditorium at McKinley Tech for a student orientation, during which police officials introduced themselves.
The briefing did little to allay the fears of Shirlita Carter, who said her 14-year-old daughter was robbed by another student at a public charter school last year. When such incidents occur, school officials and the police aren't forthright enough and lack accountability, she said.
"They can't take care of the streets, so how am I going to feel safer with them in the schools?" Carter said of the police. She said she is fed up and plans to move her two children to South Carolina.
Wilson said he will strive to improve communication with parents and to create secure conditions for learning. "We cannot just be walking the halls being a warden," Wilson said.
"The environment doesn't belong to us, it belongs to the principals" and Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, he said.