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Houston Mulls Turning School Security Over to Police

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Striving to make its schools safer for students and employees, the Houston Independent School District is considering turning its school-security operations over to the city police force.

Officials in the nation's fifth-largest district, which has its own school police department, met last week for the first time with the Houston police chief and others to explore the possibility of involving local law enforcement to a larger extent in the policing of their campuses.

"I'm not confident we are providing as safe and secure an environment as [students] deserve to have,'' said Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo, whose district serves 198,000 students on 244 campuses.

In particular, gun possession and gang activity have been on the rise in Houston schools recently, according to police.

While school crime is "fairly well under control now,'' said Don McAdams, the president of the school board, "we do not want to get behind the curve on this issue.''

Houston's mulling of improved school security reflects the concern nationally about ballooning school violence, and highlights the question of whether districts are better off handling their own security or should turn that responsibility over to local police departments.

Cost a Consideration

According to a recent survey by Houston school officials, the nation's four largest districts--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dade County, Fla.--as well as the sixth and seventh largest--Philadelphia and Detroit--also have their own police or security departments.

But the cost of providing a first-class school security force and the current duplication of some activities by the school police and Houston city police are the driving factors behind the exploration of a cooperative relationship, school officials said.

This month, Mr. Petruzielo presented to the school board a plan for improving school safety and security at a cost of nearly $30 million.

Among other goals, the plan calls for longer duty hours at secondary schools, more night patrols, the hiring of off-duty city police officers during the day at middle schools, and the purchase of a $400,000 multichannel, two-way radio network.

This year the district is spending $5.7 million to support its force of 105 officers, who have the power to arrest and who are armed and uniformed at the discretion of individual principals.

Following his presentation, Mr. Petruzielo said, a couple of school board members wondered at the wisdom of focusing so much district effort on law-enforcement activities.

Thus were born the discussions with the Houston police, which Mr. Petruzielo said he hopes to have completed by summer in time to make policy recommendations to the board for the 1993-94 school year.

At this early stage, Chief Sam Nuchia of the Houston police, who said he tends to favor a consolidated police effort, called the negotiations "serious, but still way up in the air.''

Aside from having the Houston police absorb the school police altogether, Mr. McAdams said, the district could also contract with the local police to provide a certain number of officers.

Or, he said, the district might continue to manage its own police efforts and just ask the city police to provide additional officers for troublesome schools.

By having city police patrol schools, Mr. McAdams said, the district could benefit from more experienced officers who might have "better reactions in a tight situation.''

School officials also believe that students might take city police more seriously than they do school officers.

"We do think a person with a Houston Police Department patch on the arm has a little more credibility with the kids,'' Mr. McAdams said.

A Move in Philadelphia?

At least one key school official in Philadelphia is considering a move similar to the one Houston is contemplating.

According to the The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rotan E. Lee, the president of the school board, said he would like the city police to take over security at the city's schools.

"If it was up to me, I'd take the entire security budget of the school district and enfold it into the police department,'' the newspaper quoted Mr. Lee as saying. "I don't think we need to be in the police business.''

Mr. Lee could not be reached last week for further comment.

Yet even as officials in Houston and Philadelphia consider moving away from a district security force, some experts strongly advocate just the opposite.

"Everybody knows the best way is to have your own people,'' in a school police force, said Alex Rascon Jr., the director of police services for the San Diego Unified School District.

Often, local police do not receive the kind of special training in human relations or race relations that school police have, asserted Mr. Rascon, who is also the president of the National Association for School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers.

Problems can also develop, Mr. Rascon said, because the city officers' allegiance is to the police chief and not to the district, because high turnover within a police department can leave schools with a rapid succession of officers, and because a principal may have no say in which officer is assigned to his or her campus.

Response time by the local police can also be slow, Mr. Rascon maintained, because "they're so busy out there in the streets.''

But James W. Corbin, the president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which represents city and county police who are under contract to patrol schools, disagreed. He cited quick police response times, for example, as a distinct advantage for schools.

"There needs to be a partnership between education and law enforcement,'' said Mr. Corbin, an Orlando, Fla., police officer who is assigned to a public high school.

For a district considering switching to local-police oversight of school security, Mr. Corbin argued, "I think they'll get more for their money.''

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