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Philadelphia schools to enhance police presence, use drones for events

“Every child and every parent should feel an absolute peace of mind as they travel to and from school,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said


Philadelphia School District Safety Chief Kevin Bethel. On Wednesday, Bethel said students brought a total of 18 guns into buildings last school year.

Jessica Griffin

By Kristen A. Graham
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — Drones. “Non-invasive gun detection” at all Philadelphia middle schools. More modern cameras. Off-duty city police stationed outside schools when situations warrant them.

City and school district officials Wednesday said that students and families will see beefed up security as the Philadelphia School District prepares to open its 216 schools on Tuesday.

In the 2022-23 school year, 199 public school students were shot and 33 killed, sobering figures that Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr., School Safety Chief Kevin Bethel, school board president Reginald Streater, and city Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said helped shape their plans for the coming term.

“There is one thing that’s absolutely clear: Every child and every parent should feel an absolute peace of mind as they travel to and from school,” Outlaw said at a City Hall news conference Wednesday.

Among the plans the officials detailed are:

Minimally invasive gun detection at district middle schools

Despite metal detectors at every city high school, far too many weapons made their way into city schools over the last two years, Bethel said: 18 in total. And students are attempting to bring in weapons at younger ages.

To that end, Bethel ran a pilot program at two middle schools last year, using “minimally invasive gun detection” — essentially, a tool that uses artificial intelligence to scan students as they walk into the building. It’s not a metal detector; students don’t have to remove their bags or be subjected to a search. Instead, they walk between two parallel poles, and school safety officers are alerted if a weapon is detected.

This year, each of the district’s 12 middle schools, those with grades 6-8 only, will have that technology.

“I was looking for something that did not add to the trauma of the young people,” Bethel said. “We felt this was a less-intrusive, very minimal way to do it.”

Drones to monitor events

Bethel also ran a pilot program using a drone to monitor the area around Bartram High School, a large city comprehensive school that’s also one of the district’s “supersites,” or large athletic facilities.

It’s expensive to put 15 officers at a school where a major athletic or community event is happening. But it’s much more cost-effective to put a drone up into the air.

The Office of School Safety has purchased more drones — and even trained some students as drone pilots — in an effort to cover more territory when needed.

“I can purchase a very effective drone, put it up at 67th and Elmwood, and I can see a five-block radius,” Bethel said. “We believe that technology could be something that we do to enhance our security presence, our physical presence.”

Digital cameras for all schools

One hundred-fifty district schools still use analog cameras to capture security footage at and around buildings. They “were not an effective way for us to manage security around our buildings,” Bethel said.

Over the next three years, the district is spending $47 million on a capital project to get all district cameras on a digital platform and to purchase a video management system that will link up with city cameras, giving district and city officials the ability to much better coordinate their responses to events.

Now, principals at schools that still have the analog cameras have to review footage in a camera room. Once the new cameras are in place, officials can look up footage on their phones, tablets or desktops.

Enhanced police presence at arrival and dismissal

The Philadelphia school board has signed off on up to $600,000 to pay off-duty city police officers to work outside schools as needed. There’s no set number of officers or schools or amount that must be spent; it’s a way to give officials flexibility to respond when community or school events dictate an increased presence, Bethel said.

Also, Outlaw said, “every Philadelphia School District school will receive enhanced patrols this school year, especially during the busy periods around arrival and dismissal.” Officers who had been patrolling recreation centers in the summer months will largely be rerouted to schools, Outlaw said.

Safety zones created for 40 schools

The school system and Police Department have worked together to identify 28 “safety zones” encompassing 40 schools to have even more significant police presence. The schools — which officials have declined to divulge — were selected because of crime patterns in the surrounding neighborhoods.

‘Safe paths’ programs is expanded

In 2021, the district launched its “safe paths” program, paying community members to patrol areas around certain schools as students make their way to and from classes.

This year, it will increase the number of participating schools from 13 to 22, all paid for with grant funds. The new safe paths schools will begin their programs at some point this fall, Bethel said.

There had been some hiccups with the program, with nationwide labor shortages making it tough to attract people willing to do the safe paths work, but Bethel said he was optimistic about the program going forward.

“I think we’re in a better place than we were when we first started this work,” Bethel said.


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