Philadelphia Mayor Decides against Arming School Cops

Among the nation's 10 largest cities, Philadelphia stands alone in not employing armed officers for its schools.

Yesterday, Mayor Street and his top education aide said Philadelphia would not be joining the other municipalities, despite a flagging campaign by school district CEO Paul Vallas that it do so.

"The mayor, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and I are opposed to having armed police officers in our schools," said Debra Kahn, city secretary of education. "There are a lot of things we agree with Vallas on, but that is not one of them."

Said Street: "I've talked to about a dozen police officers about this at random. I see them on the street and call them over. To a person, they think it's a bad idea...I asked why. They see it as a lose-lose. If they don't pull their gun in a crisis, they will be criticized. And if they do, and someone is shot, there's a problem."

Vallas declined to comment for this story.

To the other big cities, the standoff here may appear to be from a time gone by. For years - in some cases decades - school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, Dallas and Detroit have employed an assortment of armed police forces - from city officers to school officers to entire independent school police departments.

Some districts put armed officers in all of their high schools and some middle schools; others deploy them only to hot spots.

Spokespersons for the largest districts contacted said they knew of no cases in which an officer had shot a student.

Rossi Walter, president of the Dallas Council of PTAs, said the majority of parents in his city express only support for the armed officers.

"As a parent, it makes me feel a little bit better knowing that officers are there to deter violent situations," he said.

The Dallas Independent School District uses its own officers and city police, though city officers are being phased out, said Donald Claxton, a Dallas schools spokesman.

"There is none," Claxton responded, when asked if there was any sizable opposition to officers within the 160,000-student district.

"In a time when people depend on their kids being kept safe," he said, "it's the sign of the times."

In Houston, the school district employs an armed police force of 160 officers, who are divided into detective, patrol and K-9 units, and a SWAT-like special response team, said Terry Abbott, a spokesman for that school district.

"The kids are accustomed to it. The parents are accustomed to it," Abbott said. "Having an armed officer with police powers has become a fixture."

In Detroit, 40 armed officers move among schools.

"One of the biggest issues for us is safety and security," said Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a spokesman for the Detroit system. "So I would be surprised if there was any formidable opposition to our police."

The Los Angeles Unified School District claims to have the nation's largest armed school force, with about 335 officers.

Deputy Chief Nancy Ramirez said her officers, aided by 150 unarmed civilian support officers, work primarily in high schools and middle schools, but patrol around all schools.

"We have had awesome support from school board members. And when we go to community meetings, neighbors tell us their number one issue is safety," said Ramirez, with the force for 18 years.

She said the time officers spend inside schools leads to their becoming trusted members of school communities. The same was true when she was a student a quarter century ago, Ramirez said.

"I went to school in downtown L.A., in a place that had its moments. I'll tell you what, I was glad that they were there."

Street, however, said he was interested only in Philadelphia.

"I've been around here for a long time. I'm not new to this city and I know that police officers patrolling these schools during the school hours is a bad idea," he said yesterday. "I don't much care about practices in New York or Chicago or other cities. Philadelphia has its own history."

Vallas had proposed that two officers be placed on the grounds and the front doors of the city's most troubled high schools. His pitch called for the city to pay the officers' salaries and benefits for three years through the U.S. Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Nationally, the COPS program has provided more than $700 million to hire and train 6,300 "school resource officers" since 1998, according to a program spokesman.

The overall number of officers in schools nationally is about 15,000, according to Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

In response to a Daily News article this spring in which Street expressed his opposition to armed cops in schools, Lavarello wrote Street saying: Placing officers in schools "does not suggest your schools are unsafe, yet if we had a city or town with little or no crime, would you remove the police officers? Of course not, thus your actions and statements lack logic."

Still, even with officers in schools, danger still lurks, according to a survey released last year by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Among the key findings in the survey answered by 728 officers were:

More than 90 percent believe schools are soft targets for terrorist attacks.

More than 70 percent that aggressive behavior in elementary schoolchildren has increased in the past five years.

More than 55 percent said their school-crisis plans were inadequate.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the pros outweigh the cons in having armed officers in schools.

"Our position is that we favor police officers in schools, not just in front of schools, but in schools," Jordan said.

He recalled that when he was a teacher at University City High School in the early 1980s, there were two city officers in each comprehensive high school.

"The officers were like part of the faculty. They were part of the school community," he said. "If we really believe schools have to be a safe haven for kids, we have to do everything that we possibly can to have police officers on hand to hear from the young people and to serve as advisers. That's a good thing."