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D.C. schools chancellor defends police in schools amid questioning by lawmakers

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee  testifies at his confirmatioin hearing before the D.C. Council in February 2019.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee testifies at his confirmatioin hearing before the D.C. Council in February 2019. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee on Thursday defended the use of police officers in the city’s public schools, saying law enforcement and security guards are critical to student safety.

The funding of school security came under scrutiny during the D.C. Council’s routine budget oversight hearing. But this year, the hearing took place against the backdrop of nationwide protests calling for leaders across the country to divert funds from and reform their police departments.

Earlier in the week, the D.C. Council unanimously approved — amid objections from the mayor — reforms to the city’s police department, including banning the hiring of officers with a history of serious misconduct elsewhere, and requiring swift release of the names and body-camera footage of officers who use force on civilians.

The chancellor gave no indication that he would scale back police presence in the city’s schools or divert funds dedicated to security to other services, including mental-health support.

“We have worked really hard to ensure our school resource officers and security guards reflect our values for how we support students in our schools,” Ferebee said at the hearing. “When I talk to students, many of the trusted adults they go to are some of our security guards or school resource officers.”

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The school system has a $23 million annual contract with the city’s police department that pays for more than 300 unarmed private security guards to be in the city’s traditional public schools. Separately, the school system employs 17 armed officers who have police powers, including the authority to arrest. The Metropolitan Police Department budget also allocates 98 School Resource Officers who move among the city’s more than 200 public charter and traditional public schools.

But the budget for the upcoming fiscal year has not been finalized, and the D.C. Council could try to change the police contract. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who co-chairs the education committee, said he has been talking to budget officials to determine what the council can do to remove at least some law enforcement from the city’s schools.

In an interview, Grosso, who is not running for reelection in November, said he is considering introducing an amendment to divert money from the police contract and require the school system to spend it on mental-health workers or community members who are trained to go into schools and diffuse conflicts.

“MPD does not belong in schools. Period,” Grosso said. “If I can pull it off, I would love to pull money from this contract and double down on mental-health workers and credible messengers who can be on the street making peace.” 

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who co-chairs the education committee, said that the council has authority to amend the contract but that he wants to examine data emerging from schools more closely before he decides whether the council should take action. He said he would not support the total removal of police from schools.

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During the hearing, Mendelson pressed the chancellor on how many weapons have been confiscated from students and how many violent incidents officers have responded to. The chancellor said he would follow up with those numbers.

“We need to better know the facts before we, the council members, decide to make changes,” Mendelson said in an interview. “It is a legitimate question whether we have too much security, especially in comparison to other needs like social workers and mental-health workers. But we should not answer the question before we better understand the facts.”

At Thursday’s oversight hearing, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) pressed Ferebee on why Eastern High — a school in Ward 6 with more than 800 students — has nine security guards and four social workers. Grosso followed up. Ferebee said that he could not think of an instance in which school leaders have asked him to remove law enforcement officers from their school. He said he has, however, received requests for more security on campuses. The chancellor said police officers are key to the success of the city’s safe-passage program, which is designed to ensure that students have safe commutes to and from school. In recent years, multiple students have been fatally stabbed and shot on the way home from school and extracurricular activities.

“Why is that ratio so out of whack?” Grosso asked.

“I don't believe it’s an either-or in investments in our schools,” Ferebee said. “We have an obligation to ensure that safe and accessible campuses are available to all of our students.”

This article has been corrected. It previously misstated that the school system pays for school resource officers through a contract with the police department. MPD employs and pays for the school resource officers out of its own budget.

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