Q & A With New Orleans’ Security Chief
After Paul G. Vallas was named superintendent of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, he renegotiated a $20 million contract with a Texas-based security firm and tapped Eddie Compass, the well-known former superintendent of police in New Orleans to oversee safety and security for the state-run district. Mr. Compass, who became one of the city’s best-known public figures in the days after Hurricane Katrina as he became emotional in interviews on national television, was forced to resign his post a month after the storm. He had started his own security-consulting business when he got the call this past August about working for the school system. He sat down recently with Education Week to talk about his new job and his approach to school security.
Q: Tell us how you ended up becoming the director for security and safety for the Recovery School District.
A: I had just gotten a contract with the city to do security for the department of sewerage and water and had some things going also with the hotel industry. But around Aug. 20, I got a call from a friend who knew Mr. Vallas. My friend told me that Mr. Vallas had heard about me and wanted to talk to me about doing security for the RSD. I agreed to go talk to Mr. Vallas. He met me in the hallway; we didn't even sit down. And he told me, “Look, I don't have time to beat around the bush. We want you to take this job. What are you going to do? We don't have time to wait.” He said to me, “You seem to care about the kids in this city, so what could be more important than saving the lives of kids?” I shook his hand and told him to give me a week to get my affairs in order. I was going to be taking a pay cut and working way more hours, but Mr. Vallas has so much passion and commitment to my city. How can I have less than that when I grew up here? I wanted to be part of this.
Q: As you know, security was somewhat chaotic last school year with lots of fights, frightened teachers, and students clashing with young security guards. What went wrong? What are you doing differently?
A: It was a situation where quantity as opposed to quality was the rule. We took schematics of every building and we strategically placed security personnel in locations where they can be most useful. We have broken down the 30 school sites. (The district includes a total of 37 schools, some of which share buildings.) We took 10 locations each, myself and the other two members of my security staff. We divide responsibilities into thirds where you can have a more cohesive and consistent protocol. Now the principals call the person who is assigned to their specific school, and that brings familiarity and comfort. Now, we can go visit the schools three to four times a week as opposed to once a month. We have a greater presence and greater understanding of specific problems at each particular school and you form bonds with teachers and principals. Also the kids develop a certain rapport with us. Whereas before they would look at you as something outside the school, now they look at us as part of the school, the faculty, and the administration.
Q: You are known for your personal touch and making visits to the homes of some troubled students. Whom do you visit and what do you tell them?
A: I did this when I was the superintendent of the police department. If there's a child with particular problems, chronic problems, I will bring myself to that child's home to meet with the parents or the guardians and find out exactly what is the cause of the problem. There are things in the home that could be causing problems in school, so that's what I go to look for to talk about with them. Most people know me from when I was the superintendent of the police department. Now I knock on their door and they shout, “Oh, my God, that's the chief at the door.” I look at kids who have extensive juvenile records, who’ve had chronic discipline problems at school, those that the principals talk to me about.
Q: Can you give us an example of when your personal intervention made a difference?
A: Two weeks ago, three kids broke into a school on a Saturday and they called me to the scene. I went to the scene and there was a 7-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 12-year-old on the scene. They were boys. The 7- and 9-year-olds couldn't be arrested because they were under the age of culpability, which is 10, so the mother of one of them came. When she arrived and saw me there, she told her son, “I can't believe you embarrassed me in front of the chief. Oh, I'm going to get you when we get home.” When that lady saw me on the scene, she was so mad that her son had done something in front of me, and it made me feel really good that I had that type of respect. And I know that we won't have a problem with that kid again.
Q: How does a system of citywide enrollment—in which students often don’t go to schools in their neighborhood, as they did before the storm—affect security?
A: Somewhat for sure, it makes an impact. There are turf issues to some extent. But we are starting to get better at gathering intelligence about a potential problem before it erupts, so that we can defuse it before it actually erupts. I think the kids know that. I think we are handing out justice fairly and swiftly. That's one thing I have really stressed on our security personnel, … we have to be consistent in our discipline. We can't play favorites. I think the kids see that now. One of the things I bring to the table is a certain order. I was a very hands-on chief of police and I am very hands-on in this position. The kids constantly see me. A lot of them were at the Convention Center and the Superdome after the hurricane and they interacted with me there. They remember me from there. One young lady told me that I fed her grandmother. That gives me a sense of credibility with a lot of these kids, because I was out there when they were out there.
Q: In general, what are the kinds of mental-health issues you are seeing among students?
A: I'm not a psychologist. But a little of the innocence is gone from these kids. I think some of them are so scarred by what they've seen. They watched people go from being competent, rational human beings to doing anything they can to eat food. They walked in water that was full of feces, dead bodies, they saw people throwing up, not being able to go the bathroom or going wherever they could, they saw babies without diapers. They lived in these conditions for days. It has hardened them to a certain extent, and it’s something we all have to keep in mind when kids act out.
Q: How big is your security cadre compared with last year? What have you done to train them?
A: Last year, there were about 335 security personnel working in 22 schools. This year, we’ve got 230 or so working in 37 schools, or at 30 different locations. We didn’t need that much security, so we got rid of those that were not performing. That sent a strong message. The toughest challenge has been changing the whole climate for security personnel and raising the bar. I have made it very clear that they are professionals. We have a lot of young people and they have never looked at themselves in a professional manner. Like I told one security guard, “Your pants are hanging too low, pull your pants up. How are you going to supervise these kids if you look like them?” We are working on changing the whole mind-set, and I’ve made it clear that I am not going to accept mediocrity.
Q: How are you addressing truancy issues, which were a real problem in the first few weeks of school?
A: We were able to set up a truancy program in less than a week once we saw how low the attendance was. I was able to bring together the city and state agencies we needed to help us do this. Now, we’ve got a one-stop truancy center where the students we bring in can get counseling they need, and if a parent has been negligent, then we have the law-enforcement resources there to deal with them by issuing citations. It is working well for us. We are picking up no more than five or six kids a day.
Q: What else do you want to do in this role?
A: Mr. Vallas and I want to bring more community members and faith-based groups into our schools to help with order. We had a meeting last week with a group of ministers to talk to them about adopting schools and having male members of their congregation spend time in the schools. We are just in the embryonic stages of this, but we know that we’ve got to have community involved. We also want to take advantage of some of our retired police officers and give them some training as counselors, so they can function not only as a security presence in our schools, but as well-rounded resource officers.