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When you enter D.C. public schools, Big Brother is watching...

(Published August 14, 2000)

By RACHELLE A. JONES

Staff Writer

Big Brother is watching you – not the Orwellian Big Brother, but the D.C. Public Schools’ security team, armed with digital cameras, metal detectors, two-way radios, cellular phones, video intercoms and entry-way security systems.

And Big Brother is working 24 hours a day to ensure the District’s public schools are safe.

Patrick V. Fiel, the executive director of DCPS security, said this technology-driven system is "visible (because) I want people to know they’re being monitored." He said it’s working because "for an urban area, we haven’t had any killings" in the schools.

The philosophy behind his continuing security reformation, which is entering its fourth year, is prevention of incidents and reduction of the fear children, parents and guardians share about school safety.

"It’s challenging for a student in the inner city to survive," Fiel said. "Kids are not safe coming to and from school," but, he said, he is working to make the schools a safe haven. "Nowadays, education and security are parallel – there’s no way you’re gonna catch it (crime and violence) if you’re not proactive."

So, under former-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Fiel’s security function was given a complementary conflict-reducing and peer-mentoring program known as Peaceable Schools. Funded under the federal Title IV: Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, Ackerman said the program was "designed to build the capacity of local schools to create safe and drug-free learning environments."

Peaceable Schools Director Diane E. Powell said the program creates "primary prevention" by intervening in the lives of children who appear to be developing behavioral problems that threaten the security of themselves and those around them.

"Peace begins with the individual," Powell said. And the program seeks to provide "social remodeling, not just when the child is in trouble," but before trouble arises.

"We want to build a sense that if a child has a problem, it doesn’t have to escalate to the point of an out-of-control situation," she said.

Powell said you must "change the subset of skills" so children can learn to negotiate through their problems and difficulties by a process called "giving it, taking it and working it out."

Peaceable Schools provides principals, teachers, staff and more than 2,000 children with training in mediation and conflict resolution because "we prefer to see more mediation and fewer suspensions," Powell said.

An out-of-school suspension, wherein a student is told to stay home for a given number of days, creates a "higher degree of risk," she said. So, the Saturday Stars program and in-school suspensions were added to provide a supervised discipline program in which conflict avoidance skills are taught.

As the program moves into its second year of implementation, Powell said "more and more children are using these strategies – it’s integrated into their behavior." This allows students to approach disagreements with negotiation rather than fists, she noted.

All DCPS schools are involved in various stages of three Peaceable Schools program levels: peace keeping, peace making and peace building.

Of course, not all efforts to change the behavior of students will be effective, so Fiel’s security team of 375 contracted security guards from MVM Inc. are assigned to the D.C. schools to serve as additional monitoring and peacekeeping agents. A minimum of one security guard is on patrol at every elementary school, and two to six at secondary and high schools.

"I can’t change the environment -- we have to build around it," Fiel said.

As the former chief of security for the Pentagon and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Fiel said he is determined to create a full-scale security system that prevents, detects and stops violence in the schools.

So when students walk into the schools, their bags, purses and backpacks are moved by conveyor belt through an x-ray machine. They retrieve their belongings on the other side, after walking through metal detectors. Bulky clothes are patted down for possible weapons and security threats. And all safety hazards and prohibited items – such as razor blades, nail files, pocket knives, mace, alcohol, drugs – are confiscated under a zero-tolerance policy.

All DCPS employees and students wear digital identification cards around their necks, complete with scanning strips on the backs to gain access to certain secure areas of their school, he said. Students who cannot produce their ID tags at a guard’s request are sent to an administrator for identification. If they are not recognized, they are sent home to retrieve the tag.

Two-way and closed-circuit radios and cell phones facilitate constant communication between administrators and security officers. Obvious black digital video cameras record activity at the doors and selected other public locations in secondary schools. Eliminating the need for videotape, these recordings are saved on computers and transmissions from these are sent directly to the security guards and principal.

Fiel can also enter a password on a secure Web site to retrieve the recordings remotely. This way, he said, should a major crisis like the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado occur, police have the ability to see and assess the school’s interior situation before entering.

"If it happened in the school, 99.99 percent of the time, I captured it," Fiel said.

Additionally, doors accessing the building are locked from the outside, and Fiel has already arranged for all entrances to be incorporated in a perimeter alarm system that notifies officials when they are opened. By the middle of the 2000-2001 school year, all elementary schools will have video intercoms and electronically controlled doors to help control visitor access, he said.

Before planning and executing each school’s personalized security plan, Fiel met with students, Parent-Teacher Association members and school administrators to determine their specific needs.

"Kids want these for their own protection," Fiel said.

Should a security breach or incident occur, Fiel requires DCPS employees to report it under a policy of "Reducing Fear: Report Accidents." He keeps elaborate statistics on all unexpected events within the schools because "if you don’t have statistics, you’re not going to get the funding" for needed security improvements, he said.

"My goal is to keep people informed," said Fiel of his incident reporting methods. Daily reports on all incidents, from accidental falls to weapon possessions are faxed to the superintendent.

"I’m basically over-reporting," he said. "I’m not trying to hide anything."

Powell said she believes "technological advances are important, but we also believe ‘peace belongs to me.’"

Ultimately, she said, "it’s a collaborative that strengthens….We are all in this together. We have one customer and that’s the child and family."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator