March 24, 2006 – The Education Department has 90 days to develop a comprehensive security plan for the territory's public schools, senators said at an Education, Culture and Youth Committee meeting Friday.
Senators said they were concerned about internal and external issues plaguing the schools, such as gang violence, the prevalence of guns and drugs on local campuses, and the presence of trespassers during class times and after school.
"Cell phones in schools are also a security issue," said Sen. Liston Davis, a former education commissioner. "When there are fights, all someone has to do is get on their cell phone and call someone in from outside to come and fight with them.
There are also a number of students being dismissed by school principals who are filtering back onto the campuses and causing disturbances; however, part of the problem in this case is that the schools' decision to dismiss the students is not being sanctioned by the commissioner – she knows nothing about it."
Testimony by representatives from the V.I. Police Department added to senators concerns. Territorial Chief of Police Novelle Francis said that while camera surveillance systems have been set up in almost all of the territory's schools, there are still burglaries and assaults happening during nonschool hours.
"The cameras have proven to be effective, with a 95 percent reduction in break-ins and vandalism," he said. "However, some challenges, such as poor lighting and no 24/7 monitoring, still exist."
Francis said the department lacks manpower and funding to supply the schools with round-the-clock patrolling, but also said the department, along with the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, has embarked upon a pilot program to place cameras in five St. Croix schools and has stationed officers at "as many schools as possible."
Lt. Lorraine Edwards-Evans, commander of the St. Thomas-St. John School Security Bureau (a group of officers engaged in monitoring schools, interacting with students and organizing frequent inspections), said that limited manpower has kept the bureau from being able to resolve and prevent school violence.
"I think that parents and teachers need to become more aware of the fact that a lot of these students have emotional problems and need medication," she said. "Many of them are angry, and without proper supervision they take that anger out on their teachers."
In response to questioning from Sen. Ronald E. Russell, Education representatives also said there are currently no procedures for searching individuals who visit school campuses. "All visitors are required to sign in at a main office or some other central location," said Dr. Yahaya Bello, St. Thomas-St. John deputy superintendent. "However, there is no screening of individuals or any type of security to check if they have weapons or illegal substances."
Attorney Leslie E. Turner, legal counsel for Education, said the department could not engage in physical searches without probable cause. "Something like that could be seen as a violation of someone's fourth amendment rights," she said. "In this case, we are censored by the U.S. Constitution, and could face a lawsuit if those rights are violated."
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael outlined other potential security problems, including overgrown shrubbery and the lack of fences or gates around many school campuses. She added that security within the St. Croix district is "becoming an increasing challenge," because weapons and drugs continue to infiltrate the senior and junior high schools.
To address these issues, Michael told senators that school administrators on St. Croix would soon be receiving hand held metal detectors, and that the department would soon be interviewing candidates to fill vacant school monitor positions.
"Although we do not have specific plans in place for addressing the openness of many or our schools, we recognize the need to evaluate the efficacy of erecting fencing or some other form of enclosure to more effectively secure the various facilities," she said.
Michael added that the department is assessing the needs for better lighting at the schools, has set up surveillance equipment on various campuses around the territory, and is currently working finding a company to monitor the camera feeds.
However, Davis asked Education officials to submit "tangible evidence" that improved security measures are being put in place. Senators turned Davis' request into a motion, and unanimously voted to have the department put together and submit a comprehensive security plan – which allows school officials to search for, and seize, weapons and illegal substances – by June 24.
"At the end of the day, all we're looking for is a safe Virgin Islands," said Sen. Neville James.
Present at Friday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, James, Norman Jn-Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone and Russell.
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