Schools and the Police: ‘We Need Each Other’

By Lisa Jennings — April 12, 1989 15 min read
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Every day, during the lunch hour at Washington’s Eastern High School, Principal Ralph Neal strolls the grounds with Roy DeMesme, a District of Columbia police officer.

The object of their patrol, the principal says, is “to be seen together.”

And that sight has had its impact at this inner-city school in the nation’s new “murder capital.”

When Officer DeMesme was assigned as a “short-beat cop” for Eastern four years ago, the principal says, there was an open-air drug market right across the street. Students could look out a window during class and see a drug deal in progress.

But that is no more.

The community’s drug problem persists, Mr. Neal admits, but it has moved away from his campus since Officer DeMesme became a daily presence.

Like more and more police officers in cities nationwide, the Eastern High patrolman is not on hand solely to enforce the law. According to Mr. Neal, he also teaches classes on drug-abuse prevention and has become a friend to students.

“We have an excellent relationship,” Mr. Neal says. “We need each other.”

That sense of mutual dependency, experts say, is helping forge a new era of partnership between two public agencies that have oftimes viewed each other with mutual suspicion.

In the 1960’s, one Philadelphia school administrator recalls, school leaders sometimes saw the police as “our enemies.” And those in law enforcement, he adds, “thought the schools were full of bleeding-heart liberals who mollycoddle juvenile criminals.”

Now the two sectors are collaborating in an expanding range of activities that many see as a vital part of the nation’s war on drugs.

Last month, in a speech at Connestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., President Bush singled out for praise the national anti-drug effort called dare--or Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Begun in Los Angeles, it has for two years brought trained police officers into classrooms nationwide to teach about drugs.

Such programs, the President said, are helping youngsters learn “that the police and their schools are united in a common effort to stop drug abuse.”

And in major urban centers, where drug wars have meant escalating crime around schools, the collaboration does not end with a classroom lecture. It also includes intensified deployment of law-enforcement resources near school campuses.

In Washington, for example, officials decided in February to assign one police officer full time to each of the city’s 40 junior and senior high schools.

And in New Jersey, which has the nation’s only statewide law designating “drug-free school zones,” police departments are required to establish a patrol plan for schools that will ensure a “visible presence” around campuses, as well as at off-campus school activities.

At least seven other states are currently considering legislation similar to New Jersey’s, which creates “drug-free zones” within 1,000 feet of every school and provides for stricter enforcement and tougher penalties for drug laws there.

“Schools are definitely high on this year’s priority list for police chiefs,” says Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

Some note, however, that the new bonds between schools and police departments are not without perils. In Boston last year, for example, an elementary-school classroom was set on fire by drug dealers in retaliation for school officials’ decision to allow police to use the building for surveillance work.

And others point out that successful collaborative efforts will require a careful working through of such sensitive matters as undercover police operations and the release of4school records.

But many are quick to add that the increased interest of state and federal officials in strengthening school and law-enforcement ties is helping erase some old animosities.

The relationship between schools and police is not a new one, argues Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. But in the past few years, he says, there has been a dramatic growth in each side’s “appreciation” of the other.

Says Mr. Arenberg of the budding collaboration: “It’s a whole new way of life for both sides.”

Attitudes began to change in the early 1980’s, when the child-sexual-abuse problem brought police and school officials together to discuss reporting and investigation procedures, according to Ronald Laney, a law-enforcement program manager for the U.S. Justice Department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

At that time, collaborative programs did exist on the national level, but more often than not they were educational in nature, such as the “Officer Friendly,” program sponsored by Sears Roebuck and Company, which brings police officers into elementary schools to talk to children about being good citizens.

Only in the past two years, with the nationwide emphasis on drug-abuse-prevention education, has the “team concept” caught on, he and others say.

Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Encino, Calif., concurs on the growing interdependency that youth-related drug concerns have created. “If you ask a police officer now how much time he spends on juvenile matters, he’ll probably tell you more than 50 percent of his day,” Mr. Stephens says. “Police officers are realizing that schools are their biggest allies.”

Many credit Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates with helping spur these changing attitudes. In 1983, he went before that city’s school board to propose a possible partnership: an education program that would bring police officers into the classroom as teachers. Their aim: to try to reach potential criminals before they got into crime--in elementary school.

So began the dare program, developed in part by Ruth Rich, an instructional specialist for health education with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program was the first of its kind to take police officers off the streets and put them, full time, into classrooms.

The officers were carefully selected and trained, and were placed in schools for 17 weeks to teach 5th- and 6th-grade students for one hour per week. But they also spent the remainder of their day with the students, Ms. Rich explains, “to build a trusting relationship.”

Police officers had “more credibility” than teachers, she says, when talking about drugs. They had seen what the students saw on the streets every day.

But when the program was piloted in 10 Los Angeles elementary schools, she adds, “there was definitely some resistance.”

Many argued that the police were needed more on the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles. But Chief Gates insisted that the investment of manpower on the prevention end would be a much more effective deterrent to crime in the long run.

An independent study of former dare students in their high-school years, conducted in 1987 by the Evaluation and Training Institute for the Los Angeles police department, supports that argument.

Dare students, it found, showed significantly lower rates of substance abuse than non-dare students and were more likely to have a stonger relationship with authority figures.

The Los Angeles program was expanded in 1987 to become a national effort, called dare America.

As of January of this year, dare programs existed in 46 states, as well as several other countries, involving an estimated 1,124 communities and 2,399 police officers. They reach 3 million students each year, according to a dare spokesman.

This year, dare officers will for the first time also teach in high schools, Ms. Rich notes.

Similar programs, such as “Here’s Looking At You 2000,” and “Quest International,” have sprung up across the country. But dare remains the only national program that involves officers as teachers and is free to participating schools.

Because of dare’s popularity, says Ronald Allanach, the chief of police in Westbrook, Maine, “police chiefs all over the country have caught onto the idea that the key to controlling criminal behavior is to reach children in their formative years.”

In Westbrook, police/school collaborations include, in addition to dare and the Officer Friendly program, a “Law-Related Education” curriculum developed by the American Bar Association.

Such efforts have helped his department break out of its “us against them” attitude, Mr. Allanach claims, an attitude he says can be “very destructive” to a community.

Westbrook’s record in juvenile crime over the past few years stands as a testament to the programs’ effectiveness, the police chief maintains. Only four juveniles--in a city of 200,000 residents--have been sentenced to the local detention center in the past two years.

But Mr. Allanach adds that he is not so sure such programs would be as effective in larger urban areas, where some police officers may have “lost hope.”

Many officers elsewhere, he says, “still feel like ducks out of water” in schools. Many also feel mistrust from school officials, he adds, and “would really rather not be bothered.”

Severin Sorenson, national program director for the National Association of Chiefs of Police, is not one who would “rather not be bothered,” but he does express doubts about how effective police teachers can be.

He has become, Mr. Sorenson says, “very concerned about the message offered by some police officers in schools.”

While supportive of such options as dare, he contends that “teachers should teach, and law-enforcement officers should apply the law.”

Education is important, Mr. Sorenson says, but it should not lessen the emphasis on increased law-enforcement activities in and around schools.

Stepped-up police activity around school grounds has become a common policy directive from police chiefs nationwide, says Mr. Arenberg of the nacop, in the wake of growing urban street violence and school crime.

In an action similar to Washington’s, New York City officials directed police to increase school patrols around arrival and dismissal times last year after a series of assaults on teachers. Officers were also assigned to some middle and high schools after the incidents. But, according to a spokesman for the school system, the policy has not been maintained in the current school year due to a lack of police manpower.

In California, which is the only state to constitutionally guarantee a safe school environment, a School Law Enforcement Cadre was established in 1985 to help combat crime. It consists of a team of school and law-enforcement officials whose aim is to help build cooperative efforts.

Police departments and school districts are also mandated by law in California to report school crime statistics annually to the state education department.

Much of the increased police activity has centered on local efforts to establish drug-free school zones.

Last September, the police chiefs’ group joined with several other law-enforcement and education organizations to launch a national campaign for drug-free school zones. Groups involved in the effort include the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The coalition has proposed model legislation that would increase po4lice patrols around schools and set a minimum sentence of three years without probation for those caught distributing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.

Federal legislation along these lines was adopted last year as part of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act. But, as Mr. Sorenson points out, it can have little other than symbolic impact unless federal officers are assigned to patrol the schools.

Consequently, the coalition has been lobbying for state legislation in the several states where drug-free school zone bills are pending. They include Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio, and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

Such ordinances have already been adopted in some communities in these states and in Oregon, Rhode Island, and South Carolina, Mr. Sorenson notes.

In New Jersey, the only state to have adopted drug-free school zones statewide, Assistant Attorney General Ron Susswein says that the move “can create an environment where educators can win the drug war.”

“What good is a K-12 drug-education curriculum,” he argues, “if a kid can look out the window and see a drug deal going down?”

In several states, however, the school-zone proposal has met with skepticism from some legislators, who express fears that the measure would lack adequate enforcement and be little more than political window dressing.

And in Massachusetts, some school principals have said they fear retaliation from the drug dealers ensconced nearby if the police attempt to increase their presence around schools.

Last week, for example, several windows were smashed at the Rafael Hernandez Elementary School in Boston’s Roxbury section after the principal, Margarita M. Muniz, voiced her concerns about retaliation to legislators considering the proposed drug-free school zone legislation.

Many in the community believe the vandalism was a warning from drug dealers, similar to an incident last year in which an elementary school was firebombed after its officials cooperated with police on an undercover surveillance.

Gov. Michael Dukakis visited the Hernandez school last week and urged educators not to be intimidated by drug dealers.

The Governor also pledged his support for increased funding to augment police patrols around schools as part of the drug-free school zone package.

Ms. Muniz says she will continue to work with police, as long as the commitment to increase patrols around schools was fulfilled.

“I don’t want to back down,” she says. “My only concern is that, if drug-free zones are implemented, that they be implemented correctly.”

“There may be retaliation,” she adds, “and my first priority is keeping the kids safe.”

According to Mr. Susswein, there have been no reports of retaliation in New Jersey, but he agrees that implementing the zone laws “correctly” has been crucial to New Jersey’s success.

In addition to establishing the zones and strengthening sentences, the New Jersey law was linked to a $198-million bond issue approved by residents to build new jails for drug offenders.

The legislation also allows the state to revoke for six months the driver’s licenses of those convicted of drug crimes; those too young to drive are required under the law to pay that penalty when they first apply for a driver’s license.

The law also mandates that police departments and schools work out a written contract outlining their commitment to fighting drugs together.

In New Jersey, Mr. Susswein notes, 6,500 arrests were made within school zones last year. But in neighboring New York City, where a school-zone enforcement system has also been established, there have been only 18 arrests in the past two years, according to the New Jersey official.

Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the New York City schools, claims that the legislation there is flawed. It mandates stricter sentences for those who distribute drugs to juveniles under the age of 19, he notes, yet police undercover agents--who would be in the best position to make such arrests--must be at least 21 years old in the state.

School officials are seeking an amendment to the law in the current legislative session, he says.

Stepped-up enforcement activities have also increased the need, experts say, for clearer policy guides--both for schools and for the police--on how to handle specific security operations.

State laws, Mr. Susswein notes, may vary widely on such matters as the placement of undercover police officers, making arrests on school grounds, information-sharing between police and school officials, and the reporting procedures for student criminal behavior.

To help lawmakers, school officials, and police personnel grapple with policy questions, the New Jersey attorney general’s office has developed a “Drug-Free School Zone Enforcement Guide,” which was released nationally last August.

The “prime directive” of the guide, Mr. Susswein says, is to make sure that police duties “do nothing to interfere with the operation of schools.”

“You have to be sure that the rights of innocent students are not violated,” he insists.

On the national level, the U.S. Justice Department has developed a collaboration model, known as safe policy, or School Administrators for Effective Police, Prosecution, Probation Operations Leading to Improved Children and Youth Services.

Mr. Laney of the department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, directs that program, which has worked with 80 community groups from around the country since being established in January 1988.

The program’s goal is to bring together representatives from each community’s police, school system, juvenile-corrections agency, and juvenile court to develop an overall plan of action to lower crime and drug activity among the young.

The plan will vary according to each community’s needs, Mr. Laney notes. But in general, he says, schools will develop stricter disciplinary codes, police officials will4aim for beefed-up enforcement activity and follow-up services for juveniles, and prosecutors will seek swifter and stronger sentencing.

For Michael C. Axelrod, director of the office of high schools for the Philadelphia school system, the safe policy program he took part in last May was “the first federally funded program I’ve ever attended that made any sense.”

Out of the program came a decision by Philadelphia officials to focus the city’s law-enforcement energies on habitual juvenile offenders, a small target group of youths who are said to be responsible for a high percentage of the community’s crime.

Called the Juvenile Habitual Offender program, it involves the identification by police, prosecutors, and school officials of about 1,000 juveniles who fit a certain profile, and then the tracking of these youths’ behavior over time.

Information about the targeted offenders is to be shared among the various agencies. But, according to Albert Toczydlowski, the deputy district attorney who heads the juvenile division, school officials have not yet been willing to provide very much data to law-enforcement agencies.

Both he and Mr. Axelrod say they are hoping that school officials’ resistance will diminish as they become more familiar with the program.

“Collaboration is a really good idea,” Mr. Toczydlowski says, adding, however, that “it can get political.”

“It’s not always easy,” the deputy district attorney stresses. “But it just makes no sense for all of us to be going off in different directions. We’re all in this together.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1989 edition of Education Week as Schools and the Police: ‘We Need Each Other’


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