With the fresh death of yet another child to gunfire just outside a school, Philadelphia School District chief executive Paul Vallas yesterday pushed city officials to attach two armed city police officers to about two dozen large high schools, but the police commissioner spurned the idea.
"I don't want to make schools armed penitentiaries," Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said.
Said Vallas: "The police have to have a presence in those schools. If you have two officers at the entrance to that school, and they're there every day, it helps with intelligence-gathering. They develop a rapport with those kids. They get to know the officers, and the officers get to know the kids."
On at least two previous occasions, Vallas has sought permission from Mayor Street's administration to use federal funding to station armed officers inside large city high schools.
But yesterday - on the heels of Monday's slaying of Jalil Speaks outside Strawberry Mansion High School - Vallas modified his pitch. Instead of asking that the officers be stationed inside the schools, he suggested that two officers, whose responsibilities would include lessons inside on safety issues, be based just outside and regularly patrol the immediate neighborhood. The district's own police force of 475 officers has arrest powers, but those officers do not carry guns.
Vallas, who met with Johnson and other city officials, proposed applying to the U.S. Department of Justice for $5 million to pay for about 40 officers a year for three years.
Debra Kahn, Mayor Street's education secretary, said there might be room for compromise between Johnson and Vallas in using federal money for more officers.
"We are not prepared to say what the specific deployment plan would be," she said. Johnson, she added, needs flexibility in assigning officers where they are needed most.
And, she emphasized, "we are not talking about armed police officers being stationed in schools."
Johnson said police officers already are assigned to patrol outside each city high schools as part of their beat. When conflicts intensify at certain schools, he said, he increases police presence there.
But, Johnson added, he has a city of 1.5 million people to protect.
"With all the problems we're having inside the city, I'm not going to commit 50, 100 officers every day to the schools," Johnson said. "We can't solve all the schools' problems."
He also challenged Vallas' assertion that officers stationed at school entrances would pick up intelligence.
"When you have 80 teachers inside a school, who will get the most information?" he asked.
He said that last month, he proposed to the district and other city agencies a collaborative effort to create better intelligence-gathering on troubles brewing in the schools.
Under that effort, which he called "Operation Safe Schools," various social-service agencies along with the school district and police would work together to collect and act on tips about trouble before it could break out. A 24-hour hotline would be established, and nonuniformed police would go into the schools to talk with students about the danger of drugs and violence.
Vallas said that he supported Johnson's proposal but that it
Vallas asserted that other cities, including New York, have received federal funding to put armed officers in schools.
In addition, he recommended that squad cars be stationed outside the high schools before classes and at dismissal.
He also said he would like to see an "Operation Night Light" program, similar to a program in Boston, in which probation officers and police visit the homes of young troublemakers at night. Educators often hear of trouble brewing between students, and such information could be passed on to law enforcement officers making such nightly visits, he said.
Meanwhile, the district will add $2 million worth of security cameras to schools, he said.