Blurring the Lines

By Jessica Portner — April 30, 1997 16 min read
In Hillsborough County, Fla., school officials and police work closely together to protect members of the school community.

Tampa, Fla.

In a bungalow ringed by patrol cars on a residential street here, Albert London works with police to process a fresh batch of delinquents plucked from the streets on a sticky spring afternoon.A police officer summons up one teenager’s criminal history from a bank of computers filled with court, police, and school records. Meanwhile, London, a school psychologist, calls a principal to inform him that one of his pupils, an accused car thief, will not be attending school the next day.

In this law-and-order state, school officials like London enjoy unprecedented access to juvenile records. That leeway can be traced chiefly to a Florida law that requires police to inform principals within 24 hours if one of their students is arrested for a serious crime. As a result of the law and a get-tough attitude, Hillsborough County has forged one of the nation’s coziest school-police partnerships in a place where once turf-conscious agencies now stay in close touch.

The relationship includes the joint operation of an assessment center, law-enforcement-sponsored training sessions, and the sharing of information about students and staff members.

The streamlined communications system reduces duplication of services, say its advocates, and ultimately helps safeguard children and staff.

Others are a bit leery of the growing cooperation between cops and educators.

Nonetheless, district officials believe the relationship they have forged is necessary.

“The school system was operating in a vacuum before,” says Kelly Chambers, a district spokeswoman. “We knew we had to work together.”

Hillsborough County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is roughly the size of Rhode Island. The county stretches from the streets of downtown Tampa to the strawberry fields and cattle ranches that pockmark the perimeter. It’s an ethnically diverse cluster of working-class and wealthy neighborhoods whose population is fast approaching 900,000.

Central to the county’s combined law-enforcement-school effort is the Juvenile Assessment Center where a crew of 69 staff members--mostly school, police, or social workers--work around the clock to send accused criminals to detention centers, young victims to shelters, and truants home to their parents.

Inside this way station--where young people stay for about six hours--employees process an average of 50 Tampa Bay-area teenagers each day. As they arrive, delinquents are conveyed through a metal cage, searched for weapons and drugs, handcuffed, fingerprinted, given Breathalyzer tests, and then ushered into a holding area.

After completing a 139-question psychological exam and a counseling session, the accused burglars, batterers, and thieves mostly spend their time mesmerized by the television set that dangles from the ceiling. If fights erupt, guards have two main methods to keep order: a chair with seat belt restraints and “time out” rooms with shatter-and-soundproof glass.

Since it opened in 1993, the Juvenile Assessment Center has become a $2 million-a-year enterprise.

In another section of the 15-room complex, truants sit in a mock classroom furnished with undersized wooden desks as they wait to get picked up by their parents. There are no games, no lessons, and talking is prohibited. London says this stimulus-free environment helps to keep the youths calm.

Since it opened in 1993, the center has become a $2 million-a-year enterprise that is kept in business by the joint financial support of nearly every social service agency in town--the sheriff’s office, the school district, child welfare groups--and the state.

Through the assessment center and other police and school efforts, the open channels help alert teachers in the 143,000-student district to young offenders in their classrooms, shield children from potentially dangerous school employees through background checks, and funnel needed services to young victims of crime.

In a sterile conference room at the Tampa headquarters of the Florida department of law enforcement, Jay Clayton advises his audience of educators, church officials, and counselors to check a toddler’s head and back for signs of abuse. A diaper-padded bottom, for instance, is less likely to yield visible scars. Dark- and light-colored bruises often mean different weapons have been employed, he adds.

“Loops and straight lines on an arm or back are suspicious and could mean the child was whipped with an electrical cord,” says Clayton, a detective with the St. Petersburg, Fla., police.

Beyond the physical clues, teachers and others should check to see if the child’s story matches his or her injury and mark any dramatic mood shifts.

Young people who are sexually molested, for example, might not want to change their clothes for physical education class. They may be particularly withdrawn, exhibit infantile behavior, or use sexually explicit language, he explains.

Earlier in the day, Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., gives the group hints on hiring the right people.

He distributes samples of employment questionnaires that ask job seekers if they’ve been convicted of any crime, from rape to lewd behavior. And he passes out model permission forms that authorize the release of an applicant’s employment records, military service, and volunteer experience.

Later, another panel of local officials tells the audience about the sundry court documents, arrest records, and other materials that are available from Hillsborough County, often just for the price of a photocopy.

Stephens explains that establishing a paper trail can protect school officials from possible litigation if the employee ever commits a crime.

Not so long ago, the California Supreme Court ruled that a district could be held liable for providing positive job references for a former employee who had been accused of sexual misconduct aimed at female students.

“If you end up in court, this is a great way to say these were the procedures we took,” Stephens says.

“These forms can screen out pedophiles or perpetrators before they serve a day behind the wheel of a school bus or in your schools,” adds Michelle Jezycki, the project director for the Missing and Exploited Children Comprehensive Action Program. Her organization receives a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to run the training here--as well as 26 other sites around the country--on a periodic basis.

As part of its routine screening, Hillsborough County scans applicants’ crime records and orders a background check from the FBI.

The attendees say the tips they glean from these training sessions often help them confront crime problems more directly.

“We are on the front lines,” says Fredi Adams, an occupational specialist at McLane Middle School. Though she has reported three incidents of abuse in her career, Adams says she “might not have recognized a pattern of abuse if someone hadn’t brought it to our attention.”

The Rev. Richard Cowley, a pastor at a local Wesleyan Methodist church, says the pointers will help his congregation convert to a more modern system. The church currently screens applicants the old-fashioned way--by word of mouth.

“We have all heard the horror stories of kids in Sunday school getting molested, and we want to protect them,” he says.

Seminars such as these are but one of the tools that school and law-enforcement officials here use to keep updated in their drive to share information and ensure that the schools can be made as safe as possible in a violence-prone society.

For instance, Hillsborough County officials plan to incorporate some of these protocols into their already stringent applicant-screening process.

Local officials are aided by state law, of course. Last year, following a rash of highly publicized cases of criminals on school payrolls across the state--including an elementary teacher in Tampa accused of abusing mentally handicapped children--lawmakers required all noninstructional employees hired before 1990 to be fingerprinted.

New teachers were already covered by a law that Florida had passed more than a decade ago. But according to an investigation by the television newsmagazine show “Dateline,” hundreds of people with criminal backgrounds were still making it into the system prior to last year. The new law, which mandates that all instructional personnel hired before 1984 get fingerprinted, was designed to close those gaps.

As part of its routine screening, Hillsborough County scans applicants’ crime records and orders a background check from the FBI. Job applicants in this seaside school system must pay $45 to be scrutinized.

To David Friedberg, the district’s school security chief who screens up to 7,000 employees a year, these measures are a necessary precaution.

“I had a lunchroom applicant the other day who had 12 charges, including prostitution, battery, and drug possession,” says Friedberg, a former military policeman who turned away 30 potential employees last year because of less-than-perfect records.

Once hired, though, the monitoring doesn’t end. Every month, district officials use school employees’ Social Security numbers to comb through a police database to dredge up any recent criminal activity. For their part, the county police are required to notify district leaders if an employee is arrested, even if the offense is minor.

Armed with information that law enforcement provides, schools can direct resources to students who are victims of crime and may need special attention.

Friedberg recently flagged an employee who was caught fishing without a license, warranting a mark on his permanent record. “He was angry, but we tell educators that they’re held to a higher standard,” he says.

But breaking the law doesn’t always automatically mean dismissal: The district evaluates each case individually, Friedberg says.

“We have employees who are convicted of passing bad checks and driving under the influence,” says Friedberg. “We just don’t have rapists and murderers.”

Another link in the school-police chain is what may be the nation’s only police unit devoted to analyzing crimes against children. James V. Caimano, a detective with the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office, runs it.

His unit conducted studies between 1991 and 1993 that showed that in just one month, 1,100 incidents of child abuse and neglect went uninvestigated by police because they were masked by other crimes. An otherwise detailed officer’s report of a domestic-violence dispute, for instance, omitted the fact that the couple’s child was also injured.

In 1993, the same year the Juvenile Assessment Center was getting off the ground, Caimano and his colleagues also conducted “social autopsies” on a number of young victims in the county, tracing the times that the child made contact with the region’s network of social and educational services.

Despite repeated opportunities for intervention, many young victims failed to get the help they needed, Caimano says. “We saw the names of kids over and over again,” he says. “It was a vicious cycle.”

In the past few years, Caimano has directed his unit to unearth aggressively crimes against children. He, in turn, relies on teachers and social workers to keep their eyes open so that no important fact goes uncovered.

Armed with the information that law enforcement provides, schools can direct resources to students who are victims of crime and may need special attention.

Three years ago, the sheriff’s office asked James T. Stewart, now the principal of Ben H. Hill Junior High School in Tampa, to keep a close watch on a student who had just witnessed a murder and was a target herself. He put a school police officer on alert and barred unauthorized individuals from checking her out of school.

Police and school officials also collaborate to retrieve abducted children. Together, they construct family histories and genealogy charts and share phone numbers of relatives if a child is suspiciously absent from class.

“We visit schools and work through a scenario of how kids are abducted, evaluate the policies, and talk about how to enhance the systems’ responses,” says Jezycki.

She and other law-enforcement experts also point out to educators that the likeliest threat of abduction comes from noncustodial parents and other family members. More than 350,000 children are seized by relatives each year, while up to 4,600 children are abducted by strangers.

Only this semester, Hillsborough County school officials put their training to the test. When an 8-year-old disappeared from her elementary school one morning, police descended on the school to investigate. Information that the police gathered from interviews with the girl’s teacher and classmates helped lead them to Virginia where the girl’s mother, who does not have custody, had taken her.

Since the nation’s 12th-largest district began the association a few years ago, officials have been slowly scratching away at a rising juvenile crime rate.

At that point, the county’s reunification team took over. The multiagency group of child advocates, counselors, police, and health care workers assisted in the transition for the child to return home to her father.

Most children who are missing from school are not snatched away, though: They bolt of their own free will. Nationally, nearly 450,000 children run away from home every year, federal figures show.

“One of our peak times is when report cards come out,” says Barry Drew, a director of Hillsborough County’s child and family counseling program, which runs a runaway project called Safe Place.

Under the program, Tampa Bay-area teachers who believe a student has reason to be afraid--or is not inclined--to venture home, may usher them to one of 40 around-the-clock sites spread throughout the county that have been designated “safe places.” Among those that participate are Domino’s Pizza, Home Depot, and the YMCA. The manager of the site then calls a county social worker who escorts the youth to a shelter for counseling and evaluation.

On the law-enforcement side, police say that the collaboration has been a welcome relief. Before the assessment center opened, for instance, officers would cart truants and delinquents around in their squad cars for hours because there was no place to deposit them. Hillsborough County detention centers had too few beds so “officers had to babysit kids in the back seat,” one policeman recalls.

So far, district officials are equally pleased with the partnership. Since the nation’s 12th-largest district began the association a few years ago, officials have been slowly scratching away at a rising juvenile crime rate.

On-campus firearm possession charges have shrunk by one-third, and the number of property crimes and burglaries on school grounds has decreased by 5 percent. Police and school officials continue to work side by side at the assessment center to crack down on auto theft, one of the fastest-growing crimes among the Suncoast’s greenest lawbreakers.

Though they have no dollar figures to prove it, state education leaders are convinced that the united approach saves money.

“This is better, faster, cheaper,” says Bob Bedford, the state’s deputy education commissioner. “It’s very businesslike to coordinate delivery so agencies can try to stop problems early rather than letting things get worse and worse,” he says.

Many teachers, who frequently act as law enforcers by blowing the whistle on child abuse, student harassment, and vandalism, are also thankful for the assistance.

“Teachers are physically at risk,” says Steve Fischer, the assistant executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers’ Association, the region’s largest teachers’ union. Last year, there were 223 cases of physical assault against school personnel, most of whom were teachers, district records show. “If a student is involved in a serious offense, the teacher has a right to know that for their own protection,” he says.

Some parents have balked at this information sharing as an invasion of a student’s privacy.

Principal Stewart and other administrators say that police records are an invaluable security tool. At his previous post at a detention-center school, Stewart could scan certain computer databases to get a picture of his charges’ criminal past. Now, he keeps tabs on his middle school students by sharing information with law-enforcement officers.

“If I find a student who’s convicted of 32 auto thefts, I’m not going to let him back into the classroom,” he says, listing several alternative placements.

The data also help administrators thwart such student-on-student offenses as sexual harassment. “If we find out that Johnny attacked Susie off-campus the night before, we make sure the two don’t sit together the next day in class,” one school official says.

Still, despite the protection it might afford them, some school employees would rather not be notified of a child’s criminal record at all because the information might stigmatize the students.

“I wouldn’t want to red flag them,” says Beryl George, a teacher at Hill Junior High. “We don’t have bad students--we have students who’ve made poor choices,” she says.

Some parents have balked at this information sharing as an invasion of a student’s privacy.

“Most parents here say if [their child] screwed up or messed up, then they should have thought about [the consequences] before,” but some parents don’t want the arrest information to get out, says William Knowles, who manages crime-prevention programs for the local Urban League.

While such free flow of data may irk parents who want to keep their children’s nefarious activities secret, civil liberties experts say a court challenge would be difficult to win unless the school worker flagrantly broadcasted the information to uninterested parties.

“I’m sure there are parents who may find that upsetting that schools have access to that information,” says Andy Kayton, the legal director of the ACLU of Florida. But the state law that authorizes educators’ access “doesn’t appear to violate anyone’s right to privacy,” he says.

Even with these bureaucratic procedures in place, some parents believe that the county’s security system is not as proficient as it should be.

Bunny Begue, the president of the Hillsborough County PTA, says that information often doesn’t reach the right people fast enough.

A child was attacked recently at a middle school by another student who had been arrested three times at his previous school, says Begue.

“Everybody is fed up with kids moving from classroom to classroom and making trouble wherever they go,” Begue says. “Sometimes, the paperwork doesn’t get there.”

Despite the bureaucratic sluggishness, national education leaders, like the National School Safety Center’s Stephens, have applauded the district’s aplomb at blurring the lines between public institutions.

In order to preserve their reputation, many school districts would deny a crime problem exists before daring to fix it, he says.

In a recent NSSC survey, school administrators from across the country acknowledged almost universally that school crime is on the rise--but apparently not in their own backyard: 98 percent said it’s increasing; 37 percent said, not in their district.

A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 1997 edition of Education Week