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The honchos who run the D.C. Public Schools are currently looking for a new interim superintendent. As they interview candidates, they may want to pose the following multiple-choice question:
What is the most recent problem affecting public education in the District?
a) Gang violence
b) A divided and overlapping schools governance system
c) Security in school hallways
d) The election of school-board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz
It’ll stump any promising candidate. The correct answer, of course, is C—even though the D.C. political establishment appears to have forgotten about the issue. After all, the crisis of school security flared up all of six weeks ago. Around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 2, 17-year-old Ballou Senior High School student James Richardson got shot outside the school cafeteria. The alleged killer, fellow Ballou student Thomas Boykin, suffered from gunshot wounds, as well. The next day, the D.C. politics A-list descended on the school: Mayor Anthony A. Williams was there, along with City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, and assorted Cabinet members. The D.C. Council was well-represented. D.C. Board of Education President Cafritz tried her best to sit still, as did her school-board colleagues.
Even D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King showed up.
So all three branches of D.C. government had come together—over something aside from the annual Olender Foundation Awards. And a consensus was at hand: The city’s political leadership must do everything in its power to stop school violence.
That imperative had a shelf life of about a week, thanks to D.C.’s legendary municipal-attention-deficit disorder.
LL maps the crisis life cycle:
1. John A.Wilson Building, we have a problem.
The Richardson slaying wasn’t the first fatal incident of the school year. A shooting outside Anacostia High School on Oct. 30 claimed the life of junior Devin Fowlkes.
But apparently schoolhouse violence doesn’t reach crisis proportions until a second pupil dies.
2. We must act. Now.
A day after the fatal shooting at Ballou, the mayor and much of the city’s elected leadership spent the evening listening to parents and students vent.
Many spoke directly to the mayor. “Give a promise that this is not going to happen in this school again,” demanded one parent. Some in attendance asked for more police presence. Some asked for more attention from the mayor and the council. Richardson’s mother wanted prayer in the schools.
Two nights later, Mayor Williams made his own preference known: He wanted Chief Ramsey and the Metropolitan Police Department to provide security at city schools. He inserted the pronouncement at the last minute into his State of the District address. “That other night, people kept asking Chief Ramsey what more he could do. And he was forced to explain that it was the public schools—not the police—who are responsible for school safety,” said Williams. “It doesn’t make sense. Not to our families. Not to our police. Not to me.”
Except it made sense to D.C. Public Schools Interim Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie.
But LL’s skipping ahead.
One week later, Mayor Williams stood in front of reporters at his weekly press conference and disclosed the Ballou security plan. He left the nitty-gritty details up to Chief Ramsey. “Having kids shot in the corridors—it tells you that the status quo is not acceptable,” Ramsey told reporters. “You’d be hard-pressed—unless you live on another planet or somewhere—that there’s not a need for us to re-establish some control over Ballou High School.”
The Ramsey plan outlined a set of conditions that argued for real cops in school corridors. “The laxity extends to more serious matters,” reads the Ballou security blueprint. “For instance, there is a no-tolerance policy regarding possession of weapons or illegal drugs on school grounds. However, although policy requires that a student found with these items automatically be expelled from school, students are frequently suspended instead.”
The D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation Chair Kevin P. Chavous announced that he supported the mayor’s plan and introduced a bill to transfer all authority over school security from the school system’s private contractor to the police department. “There’s a state of crisis now. We can’t have kids getting shot in the schools,” Chavous told the Washington Post. “It’s shameful. It requires an immediate response.”
Then Massie put out a press release tearing the chief’s Ballou security plan apart.
“Our responsibility as a school system is to provide safe and secure environments that support the academic needs of our students,” said the interim superintendent. “To add to an education environment additional police officers who carry weapons and have the authority to arrest students, does not address the problems that cause violence….Our schools are not beats, and our students are not criminals.”
Massie’s pronouncement ended up delivering a fatal blow to the mayor’s policing plan. Williams & Co. never fought back.
When asked about school security at his March 3 press briefing, the mayor had little to say about his plan. “We met with a number of schools people and thought we had their support…but presto! We didn’t.”
3. We need to focus on this new crisis.
On Jan. 31, the Post reported that the tap water at homes throughout the city had lead levels far above the Environmental Protection Agency standards. By the next week, lead in the water had taken over as the crisis du jour.
The Post assigned a team of reporters to cover the story. Local leaders formed task forces. Children were at risk—but this time we could point fingers at the feds as well as ourselves.
Meanwhile, the old crisis—school security, if you recall—was lurking around somewhere in D.C. Council deliberations. Soon after the mayor’s policing plan seemed to collapse, Massie transmitted to the D.C. Council for emergency approval a multiyear contract worth up to $75 million to maintain the status quo in the schools, by keeping the Watkins Security Agency of Washington, D.C., on the hall beat.
Watkins’ work with the city is currently under review by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General. The agency has been investigating the company’s performance as well as its contracts with the school system that were awarded without D.C. Council approval.
Last Friday morning, Watkins’ security contracts with the school system were discussed in a Committee on Government Operations roundtable. Yet Room 412 was hardly filled with the D.C. politics A-list. Only Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty hammered away at D.C. public schools officials, wanting to know why eight contracts with Watkins, totaling more than $12 million over the past year, required emergency treatment and did not get seen by the D.C. Council.
Fenty had a challenging time getting any answers out of District of Columbia Public Schools Chief Procurement Officer Glorious Bazemore. “Who knows the answer to this question?” the councilmember repeatedly asked Bazemore and other staffers. “Is there anyone from DCPS who knows the answer to this question? Do you know the person who knows the answer to this question?”
As it turns out, the schools people did: Annie Watkins, who had signed off on the contracts.
But Watkins—no relation to the security firm—exited the chamber once Fenty started asking tough questions.
On March 15, Massie sent a letter to the council withdrawing the multiyear contract from consideration.
“Neither DCPS nor the mayor seems to be serious about school security,” says Fenty.
The District’s Housing Production Trust Fund is a nest egg to help fund affordable housing projects in the city. It’s also been seen as a pot of gold for D.C. pols, who try to raid it every time they foresee a budget shortfall.
Given the lean budget season ahead, affordable-housing advocates rallied early to protect the fund. On Thursday morning, about 100 activists gathered for a press conference at the Wilson Building featuring housing-trust-fund supporters At-Large councilmembers Phil Mendelson and Harold Brazil, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Ward 4’s Fenty.
Then the group met with Mayor Williams.
Finally, the housing activists fanned out throughout the building to meet with other councilmembers. A dozen or so headed to the office of At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania. They were informed by Catania’s constituent services director, Johnnie Scott Rice, that the councilmember was unavailable and no one could meet with them.
According to several activists, Rice pushed the group out the door.
Rice says she asked the group to leave. “They started screaming and yelling that this was the people’s office and they weren’t going to leave,” says Rice.
Then she locked the door.
Word soon spread, and more housing activists gathered outside Catania’s door. “Open the door. This is the people’s building!” several chanted. After a few minutes, the Catania staff agreed to meet with them. Catania Chief of Staff Linda Bumbalo repeated that Catania was out of the office and unavailable.
That’s when the at-large Republican strode in from his back office to find out what the hell was going on. Catania tells LL he was just popping into his office for a moment before heading to Vermont to discuss prescription-drug policy.
“He came out yelling and screaming,” says Linda Leaks of Empower D.C. After a few minutes of Jerry Springer theatrics, Wilson Building security responded to the first floor office and expelled one activist.
Two officers escorted Catania down the hallway and to his car as activists shouted, “Out with Catania!”
According to sources, Catania was fuming about the incident and characterized the housing advocates as “hoodlums” and “thugs.” He also removed his name from a letter supporting full funding of the trust fund.
“I am so angry over this I can’t see straight,” says Catania.
•For weeks now, LL and the rest of D.C.’s Fourth Estate have been trying to report on D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp’s schools-governance proposal. The council’s great compromiser has been crafting her plan behind closed doors, making sure not to write anything down on paper that might eventually make its way to a newsroom fax machine. “You always have to start discussions among groups to get to certain points so you can present something to the public,” Cropp explained to LL on Monday afternoon, defending her covert approach. “Every meeting cannot be held in the public.”
Cropp informed LL that she planned to brief her colleagues on her negotiations with the mayor and the school board the next morning at the council’s closed-door breakfast meeting. Before every legislative session, Cropp and her colleagues confab out of public view to hash out opinions on the legislation up for consideration that day.
A little after 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose arrived followed by Evans. Yet someone had beaten them both: Colbert I. King, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post columnist and editorial writer.
King says a council staffer let him into the room, mistaking the journalist for the breakfast meeting’s caterer.
King had decided to bring a little sunshine to the meeting. When Cropp arrived, she told King she’d be happy to escort him out, to the public chamber where he should wait for the public session to begin. King argued that Cropp et al. were conducting public business behind closed doors. “It’s not a private corporation talking about investments and shareholders’ value,” says King. “They’re in a public building, talking about public business.”
Cropp eventually asked King to leave. Per a conversation with the Post’s legal counsel, King decided to go.
But King got something out of the confrontation: “I came away from the building knowing more about the state of play among the council, mayor, and school board than I did going in,” King brags to LL.—Elissa Silverman
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.