Amid D.C.’s school safety debate, 8 students reflect on their experiences | #schoolsaftey

At first, they thought it was an active shooter drill. On what seemed like a normal Wednesday, students at Roosevelt High School — along with children at neighboring campuses — were placed on lockdown.

Soon, they would learn a classmate had been shot in the parking lot. Jefferson Luna-Perez was fatally struck earlier this month outside the building where he had attended classes that day, police said. The 17-year-old would be the latest victim in a string of violent incidents occurring just steps from what is supposed to be a safe haven for youths: school.

Less than a week later, a student was shot just outside the KIPP D.C. College Preparatory complex. These two shootings, along with several others, exemplify the dangerous situations many students face attending school in the District.

In January, a student at Maya Angelou Public Charter School was found with a handgun. Two months later, a teen was robbed at gunpoint in front of Coolidge High School while the school system’s chancellor was visiting classrooms. Dunbar High School went into lockdown last month after officials said an “unknown” person entered the building.

Killings of children spark outrage, frustration over violence in D.C.

Meanwhile, city leaders have continued to wrangle over what will keep children safe, with much of the debate focusing on whether police should be stationed in schools. Those discussions seemingly came to a close this month when the D.C. Council moved to repeal a controversial measure it approved two years ago that sought to gradually remove school resource officers, or SROs — police who are specially trained to work in schools — from campuses by 2025.

For now, the officers will remain — mirroring trends seen in districts, including Denver and Alexandria, Va., that are reversing the school police bans they adopted after George Floyd was murdered in 2020. In D.C., a new committee approved by the council will also explore alternate options for school safety.

But as safety concerns mount, some students say the adults in power have overlooked their perspectives. In more than a dozen interviews with teenagers across the city, young people expressed anxiety over mass shootings, unsafe routes to school, a dearth of mental health professionals and lack of community on large campuses. Here’s how eight students feel about safety on their campuses and what they want leaders to know:

Jalynn Charity was home sick on the day her classmate, Luna-Perez, was shot. She received a text from a friend, who said the school had been put on lockdown.

“I just wanted to know what could lead somebody to do that,” the 11th-grader said. When she returned to school the next day, she said the energy in the building was “gloomy.”

“Even today I took an AP test and I was in the building that overlooks the area where the kid was shot. It was just very uncomfortable.”

Charity said she generally feels safe at school, adding that Roosevelt has “a good community and a good culture.” Still, there are fights, which can make some students feel unsafe, she said.

The 16-year-old’s biggest fear is a school shooter, though. “I try to rationalize with myself, like, it’s never happened in D.C.,” she said. But “as the school year goes on, and you hear about more things, you think maybe that it could happen.”

She credits any sense of security she has at school to metal detectors, kind security guards and school resource officers — although that wasn’t always the case. “Previously, I thought it was really inappropriate to have them in schools. I felt like school should not be a place where you feel that presence of authority that could possibly arrest you,” she said.

But this month’s shooting complicated things. “It’s a lot of conflicting emotions because they can make you feel safe, but also have that sense and aura of bad energy the way they walk around sometimes.” As long as police are in schools, she added, officers should work to have positive relationships with students.

The biggest detriment to Charity’s safety isn’t anything her school can control, she said. It’s guns. “I feel like guns should not be accessible to kids or to people who show histories or potential to carry out acts of violence against people,” she said. “Gun violence is everywhere in our city. It’s honestly scary how normal it is to know somebody who’s been affected by gun violence.”

With more than 2,000 students, Jackson-Reed is the largest high school in D.C. Belinda Alcoser, an 11th-grader, doesn’t think that’s safe.

“It’s such a big school, any stranger could come in and no one would know,” Alcoser said. “There’s no way to feel safe at a school that is as big as Jackson-Reed.”

The new MacArthur High School in upper Northwest should alleviate overcrowding at Jackson-Reed when it opens this fall. But until then, students like Alcoser describe a sense of pervasive anxiety about an intruder slipping past the school’s metal detectors and security guards. Alcoser said she and her friends talk often about the possibility of someone entering undetected and hurting students.

Part of the problem, she said, is that there are too few adults in the building to keep a watchful eye or notice when something is amiss. “There’s just not enough teachers or staff to be on top of everybody,” Alcoser said. “The teachers don’t know us at all. There’s no type of connection with the teachers and the students because there’s so many of us, they don’t even know who we are.”

Alcoser said having more teachers and staff would make her school safer. Jackson-Reed does not have a school resource officer but, after several fights between students, a police officer has recently started standing outside during dismissal, she said.

There is also already a regular police presence at the nearby Tenleytown-AU Metro station, she said. The officers, however, do not seem to notice certain situations at the station Alcoser considers to be unsafe, such as students fighting or smoking marijuana.

“It just shows that they don’t care, like they’re not going to do anything if something does happen,” she said. Based on what she’s seen at the Metro station, she doubts officers would improve things on her campus. “They don’t make me feel safer even though we’re in the middle of the city — which should make us feel safer because there’s more people around, more police and everything — but it does not help at all.”

During a lockdown in November that was triggered by nearby gunfire, Alcoser was also surprised by what she said was an underwhelming police response. There had been some property damage nearby but no reports of any victims, authorities said after the incident.

“Where are all the police that are supposed to be around?” she remembers thinking.

As is the case at many high schools, fights are common at Dunbar. But they don’t bother 11th-grader Silas Alemayehu.

“The fights in school are a joke to me. I’m always the person walking past,” Alemayehu said. “The fights outside, however, that’s where people feel as though they have a lot of freedom … you don’t want to be there.”

He said that fights are less predictable when they erupt outside of the school’s walls.

Still, Alemayehu said he feels safe at Dunbar — despite incidents including bomb threats last school year and a recent lockdown after “an individual unknown to the Dunbar community” tried to enter the school, officials said. School security and staff escorted the person out of the building “without issue,” Principal Nadine Smith told families. Police were also called.

Dunbar does not have a dedicated school resource officer but police do come in to assist during events and emergencies, Silas said. At the height of D.C.’s school resource officer program, more than 100 police were stationed inside schools. That number stood at about 60 this year, officials said.

Alemayehu thinks the jobs police are supposed to perform in schools — de-escalating conflicts, checking for weapons and building relationships with students — can be carried out by unarmed school security. “I don’t see why their role is any different from a security guard,” he said about police.

The 17-year-old credits the sense of safety he feels at school to the teachers and staff. “At Dunbar, there’s this sense of community,” he said. Every grade level is assigned an assistant principal and each administrator knows every student. “I feel very safe to not have to worry about my safety.”

Tyela Dawson, 14, and Marcus Williams, 15

On a recent afternoon, Tyela Dawson prepared to take the stage during a rally for police-free schools. “I don’t feel safe,” she said about having officers in her high school. A few dozen students, teachers and community leaders had gathered across the street from the Wilson Building where, inside, lawmakers were grilling city education officials during an hours-long oversight hearing. “Knowing that I’ve seen all the stuff with police brutality, I know what they can do and what they’re able to do and what they’re in charge of. It scares me.”

Dawson is a freshman at Anacostia High School, where teachers last year called for a heavier police presence around the school after a shooting. No one was injured, but the school’s front door has been pocked by bullet holes.

Dawson, however, said she does not trust the police and does not want them in schools. The mere presence of officers makes her feel anxious, and she worries about being criminalized in a place where her focus should be on essays and algebra. She’d rather have additional teachers, counselors and other trusted adults. “Maybe they should hire staff specifically for breaking up fights or mediations.”

Marcus Williams, a 10th-grader at Anacostia, criticized school security guards during the April demonstration that was organized by the Black Swan Academy, a youth group. He said students feel overly surveilled.

“People might say they’re just doing their job, but is looking at a child like a criminal every … day a job? Is standing in the hallway, barely even doing anything but making kids uncomfortable a job? It’s not,” he said. “Walking in the halls has made me paranoid. Every time I walk past a security guard, it makes me feel less and less that I’m in school, but in jail.”

During emergencies, “security is never there anyway,” Williams added. When fights erupt, for example, teachers are often the ones breaking them up, he said.

Dawson took the stage and looked out at the growing crowd. “Every single dollar that is spent on police or policing in our schools should be instead invested into something that can help students thrive and be safe,” she said.

BASIS DC Public Charter School

Unlike many high schools in D.C., BASIS, a charter campus in Northwest, doesn’t have security guards or metal detectors. Noemie Durand, a senior, said it’s their absence that makes her feel safe.

“If anything, it kind of makes me feel safer because it doesn’t remind me that there might be a threat,” she said.

The school is small; fewer than 700 fifth- through 12th-graders are enrolled. “Everybody knows everybody,” Durand said. School staff would immediately notice an intruder, she added.

Durand has spent a lot of time thinking about school resource officers — she argued with other students in D.C. about the issue in a policy debate program during the pandemic. She doesn’t think they should have a regular presence in schools.

“The fact that they’re police and the fact that they’re connected to the law, one, makes students feel more unsafe and, two, leads to more student arrests for things that they don’t need to be arrested for,” she said. She also pointed to some research that suggests school police do not prevent mass shootings.

Instead, Durand recommended schools train existing staff or security officers to de-escalate fights and mediate conflicts. “I don’t think that police are required for that,” she said.

Benjamin Banneker High School

At Benjamin Banneker, students are forbidden from bringing certain items into school, said Nyla Anderson, who is in 10th grade. Weapons are obviously banned, but so are perfumes, silverware and outside food and drinks, she said. Students are also required to hand over their phones when they arrive in the morning.

It is unclear if any of these rules actually make the school safer, particularly because they are unevenly enforced, Anderson added. Once, she brought Starbucks to school and was told to throw it away. A different Banneker student said she’s seen her friends bring in silverware.

“They enforce it when they feel like it,” Anderson said. “It just feels unnecessary.”

Anderson also described a culture in which students are closely monitored. “There’s not really much time for people to go fraternize with people from other classes outside of lunch or when lunch is about to start.” Attendance is taken during every class and teachers try to know where students are at all points of the day. The downside, however, is a sense of excessive surveillance. “They have us on such a prison timeline, that’s the best way to describe it.”

But those policies aren’t likely to prevent one of the teen’s more pressing fears: a school shooting. She feels exposed by the Northwest school’s large windows. While it’s unlikely, the thought of being shot lingers over the school day.

“That’s a joke that we like to make,” she said. “If someone really just decided to, they could shoot [at the building] and take out a whole class.”

Friendship Public Charter School — Technology Preparatory Academy

Tariq Cotton, a senior at Friendship Tech Prep, said he feels safe at school. “I know the staff does their best to make us feel comfortable,” he said. Teachers have created an environment where students can seek advice on anything, from academic problems to personal challenges.

The presence of metal detectors and security officers has also contributed to Cotton’s sense of safety on the Southeast campus. The school has a school resource officer, too, Cotton said. But the 17-year-old doesn’t think police belong in schools.

“In our community, in the community I live in, sometimes police aren’t seen as the protecting people that they’re made out to be,” Cotton said. He lives in Ward 8 and could walk to school, but his father prefers he rides the bus because it’s safer. “It’s not particularly a safe environment over there.”

Cotton has noticed a heavier police presence around the school — officers out on sidewalks or sitting in patrol cars — in the wake of recent shootings. He has also seen fights and drug use in the area.

“It doesn’t make me feel a particular way,” Cotton said about the extra police. “This is just where I live and that’s just the things that’s happening. It’s there so I try to move past it and do what I have to do to get to a better place.”

In Cotton’s eyes, the community actually needs more opportunities — such as jobs — for “the people that are on the streets causing this danger,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out on the streets because they don’t have anything else that they can do in life so they resort to those types of things to provide for themselves and their families.”

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