School security systems slammed in Philadelphia

The night more than $26,000 in computers and equipment was stolen from Overbrook High School, the school's alarm system had not been turned on and none of the school's 38 internal cameras had tapes in them, schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said yesterday.

The Jan. 13 break-in has triggered a review of after-hours security for the entire Philadelphia School District to ensure that "incompetence and negligence" do not make schools vulnerable, Ackerman told the Daily News.

"Adults aren't being held accountable for results and I am frustrated with this process, but I am going to fix it," she said.

The security systems at all schools will be reviewed, she said, "to make sure that they are fully engaged every day, that the persons responsible for engaging these systems are doing their jobs every day and to hold people accountable when they leave our schools vulnerable."

Since Sept. 1, there have been 26 break-ins across the district, which has 270 schools. The incidents include a burglary at Furness High School Sept. 29, which resulted in the theft of $48,000 in computers.

"To me, we shouldn't have any break-ins if people are doing their jobs - we absolutely should not," said Ackerman, who took the helm of the 157,000-student district last June.

At the root of the security problems, she said, is "human error."

Philadelphia police on Jan. 20 arrested two boys, aged 17 and 16, in connection with the Overbrook High case.

The suspects - whose names were not released because they are juveniles - were charged with two counts of theft, burglary and criminal mischief in the heist, which netted them 10 Apple laptop computers, a computer projector, two digital cameras and computer speakers valued at $26,300, a Police Department spokeswoman said yesterday.

Though some of the Overbrook and Furness equipment has been recovered, Ackerman said, she did not know exactly how much.

She said that the 38 idled cameras at Overbrook cost an estimated $100,000. Why they had no tapes in them is part of the district-wide investigation, she said.

As for why the school's alarm system had not been turned on, Ackerman learned the reason only after the break-in: The night-side cleaning crew had not been given the security code to set the alarm system.

That cleaning crew, along with crews at 19 other schools, are not district employees but are employed by a subcontractor of Sodexo, the food-services and facilities-management company that won the contract to clean the schools several years ago.

The crews, for unknown reasons, are not given the codes to set the alarm systems when they finish, Ackerman said.

The Sodexo contracts are now being changed to give their cleaning crews the task of setting the alarms, as district custodians do, she said.

"I am surprised that we don't have an accountability system in place for setting alarms," Ackerman said. "That is incomprehensible to me.

"Custodians do this in hundreds of school districts," added Ackerman, who previously led the San Francisco and Washington, D.C. school districts.

District police officers are supposed to set the alarms at the 20 schools cleaned by Sodexo, but that does not always happen because there are too few officers on duty to make it to all the schools, said Michael Lodise, president of the officers' union.

He said that three to five officers are on duty each night to lock up the schools and to respond to alarms and problems at other schools across the city - a span of more than 120 square miles.

"It's not a good situation out there," Lodise said. "We just don't have the manpower to do the job. My guys are frustrated. They are just being overworked, and then when something happens, there's finger-pointing."

George Ricchezza, president of District 1201 of 32BJ-SEIU, the union that represents district custodians, said that his union members shouldn't be blamed because burglaries at schools they clean tend to be traditional break-ins as opposed to the burglaries at Sodexo-cleaned schools, where alarms weren't even set.

"It's just unfortunate the kids are the ones to suffer, especially when computers are taken," he said.

Ackerman said that the problem of securing school buildings at night is "systemic" and has nothing to do with who does the cleaning. She noted that of the 26 school break-ins this year, just four occurred at schools cleaned by the outside contractor.

"If every school that had an alarm system and camera system turned them on, we could alleviate this problem," she said.