D.C. police this year have quietly adjusted the way they patrol the District’s traditional public and charter schools, moving away from assigning dedicated officers to most public high schools and instead clustering groups of schools with shared officers.

Some worry that the shift, which was not publicized before the school year, takes officers away from permanent posts at some of the District’s most troubled high schools to rotate them among campuses.

Under the new system, traditional public and charter schools — from elementary through senior high — are grouped into geographic “clusters” based on population, neighborhood crime statistics and truancy rates. Police say the strategy is needed in part because of the District’s changing educational landscape, in which charter schools have been growing quickly and now enroll more than 40 percent of students.

The deployment change comes as school systems across the country debate school safety — and whether schools need armed guards — after last year's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“I must say in a time when security is [of] the utmost importance, all schools should have a dedicated [officer] and in some cases more than one,” said Aona Jefferson, president of the council of school officers, a union that represents principals. “I’m concerned about the response time when there’s an emergency in a school.”

D.C. police note that each public school also has permanent, private security guards, some as many as 11, who provide day-to-day protection and monitor access to buildings. Those 253 unarmed guards are hired by D.C. police under a $15 million contract but unlike police are not deployed to charters, which have to hire their own private security.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the primary role of the 102 armed school resource officers — about 60 on days, 23 on nights and the rest supervisors — is to mediate disputes before they escalate and deal with truancy. “It’s really to have them be a resource to students, to try to keep them in school,” she said. “The number of crimes reported in schools is very low.”

According to the D.C. police School Safety and Security report, school police officers in 2011 made nearly 500 arrests and mediated more than 2,300 disputes. Lanier described this year’s changes as evolutionary, and she said that some clusters have more officers than schools and that there is flexibility to move officers based on need.

D.C. charters are taxpayer-funded institutions that operate as independent school districts. They receive the same per-
student tax funding, but they do not get some of the government resources — such as legal services — that benefit traditional schools. Many charters do not follow traditional grade divisions, nor do they have standard hours.

Charter schools lacked regular police presence until fall 2009, when a spate of violence near Northeast Washington’s Friendship Collegiate Academy spurred city leaders to begin providing charters with protection.

Since then, police presence at charter schools has increased, said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools, a key force in pushing for the change.

“I don’t know that school leaders feel as if they have an [officer] at hand whenever they need one, but there is a hotline and there is a roving presence,” she said.

Edelin said she is cautiously optimistic about the new deployment strategy, though there are still many questions, including whether roving officers will build relationships with students.

“It certainly signals that there’s an awareness that charter schools are public schools that deserve the same taxpayer-provided services,” she said. “How it’s implemented and whether students feel safer in schools remains to be seen.”

In most cases, eight to 10 officers are responsible for between nine and 16 schools, most of them elementary and middle schools that do not require constant attention. The exception is in the 2nd Police District, which has six officers assigned to five schools.

Lanier said high schools are continuing to get the bulk of attention, but she emphasized that it was a misconception that many high schools previously had a full-time officer. She said the “dedicated” officers — a term used by police — had always been expected to keep tabs on nearby elementary and middle schools in addition to visiting the homes of suspected truants. Even under the old system, officers would not be exclusively at one school.

The chief said that she does not need more school resource officers. Recent consolidations and closures have left the city with fewer schools. Last year, police covered 47 charters and 41 public schools; this year, it’s 45 charters and 34 traditional schools.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D Ward-6), chairman of the public safety committee, said he wants to review crime statistics to ensure that officers are properly distributed among campuses. A report by police detailing the new plan does not include information on crime in or around schools.

“I want to know what is the typical infraction that the police currently respond to,” said Wells, who is running for mayor, “and to what degree having a policeman in a school is a preventative measure versus a law enforcement measure.”

A spokeswoman for the D.C. school system said in a statement: “We are fully confident in [the police department’s] commitment to our shared priority of keeping all our students safe.”

Word of the change emerged during staff meetings before the start of the school year, such as one at the newly renovated Cardozo Education Campus, a sixth-through-12th-grade school in Northwest Washington. Some teachers expressed concerns, not only over safety but also about whether officers responsible for more schools will have time to interact and connect with students.

“This goes against Chief Lanier’s whole concept of community policing,” a teacher at Cardozo said after learning of the plan. The teacher spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships with colleagues. “The police should be at the school developing positive relationships with the staff and students. Instead, they are just going to be responding to problems.”

Cardozo was, until this year, a high school with two dedicated officers. This year, eight to 10 officers are responsible for Cardozo — with about 700 students — as well as four other high schools and five elementary and middle schools. The high schools include Benjamin Banneker, one of the District’s highest achieving, with about 420 students, and three charter schools with grades up to 12th. Two of those charter high schools, Booker T. Washington and Cesar Chavez, each had a dedicated officer last year.

The District’s largest public high school, Wilson Senior High, with about 1,800 students, is in the smallest grouping, sharing six officers with two other high schools, an elementary and a middle school.

Coolidge High School in Northwest — where last year one student shot another outside as classes were being dismissed — is in one of the biggest groups, sharing 10 to 12 officers among 15 schools, including another public senior high school and four charters with grades up to 12th. Ballou High, where last year four students were hospitalized when someone used pepper spray on a crowd during a fight, now shares police with nine other schools, including three high school charters.

The District has the largest contingent of school police in the area. Most suburban police agencies use the cluster format as well, and typically only for high schools.