With less than 24-hours notice from the School District of Philadelphia, Shawmont Elementary’s parents learned that their school police officer was being cut and moved to another school. One week later, those parents banned together for an emergency meeting in Roxborough to address their concerns.
The cuts are part of the District’s plan to fill a $61 million budget gap, in part, by laying off 90 school police officers at schools throughout the city. Some of the existing officers have been reassigned to new schools.
In addition to cutting lunchtime aides, the upper-grades counselor and supplies at Shawmont Elementary, the school’s full-time police officer, Jannifer Downing, was transferred on Feb. 8 to a Kensington school that the District determined to be more in need.
Although the local police will be required to make random drop-ins, parents think incidents will increase now that there is no permanent police presence in the school.
“We’re going to have one or two kids who are going to think ‘what can we get away with, what can we do?'” said Home and School co-president Michelle Havens. “Wednesday, a couple of kids tried to cut [class] in the bathroom. That didn’t happen before because [Officer Downing] would do her rounds.”
Although Havens said she’s not too worried about an increase of serious incidents, she’s worried about how it’ll affect learning.
“Our staff is excellent,” she said. “But there’s no reason to interrupt their instruction time to patrol their school when it’s not their job.”
Catherine Cmiel, a first grade teacher at Shawmont, said precious time is wasted when teachers have to fill gaps left by budget cuts. She worries that the cuts will cause productivity to go down and that teachers will inevitably be blamed for faltering performance in testing.
“We definitely have to fill a lot of the gaps,” she said. “But particularly at Shawmont with Officer Downing being cut, teachers are doing a lot more monitoring of not just their classrooms, but the cafeteria, the hallways, the bathroom.”
Jackie Schindler, whose daughter is a fifth grade student at Shawmont, said teachers are already stretched thin, and that the district is making cuts without thinking of the consequences.
“Every cut affects the kids and how they’re learning,” said Schindler. “This is public education, and they need to keep in mind that these kids are our future.”
She added, “We feel strongly about this particular cut because it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Fear of more to come
Havens said she expects more cuts to come.
“[The District] announced that some of the cuts that they’re proposing are music, special education and gifted programs,” she said. “They have to be on the list because there’s not much else left.”
Havens hopes to mobilize not only Shawmont’s parents, but other schools and community members to keep these cuts from happening.
During the meeting, she tossed around the idea of presenting information to childless community members as well as businesses. They should care, she said, because if the school has no control over children, they might become a nuisance to the neighborhood.
One parent in the crowd cited an incident of her son being jumped outside the school by two high school students. She said Officer Downing stepped in to take care of the incident.
“Officer Downing went that extra step like she always does,” she said. “Even though it’s not really her job.”
A call to action
Havens said getting parents, the community and the media in the loop is just the first step. Tuesday’s meeting served that purpose. Next up on the agenda, she said, is to cycle a petition through the community. There was also talk of organizing a protest.
Parents said their kids are worried about cuts, and they want their voices to be heard too.
“This is what they go to bed worrying about,” said one parent.
Kacey Plunkett, a seventh grade student at Shawmont, said she isn’t happy with Officer Downing being removed, but is more concerned that other programs will be cut.
“I feel devastated because I’ve been in music and instrumental and vocal ensemble for a few years now,” she said. “And it’s going to be closed in a few weeks.”
Another child attending the meeting raised his hand and asked, “Is there any way we can help?”
Havens said parents will help children organize any way they see fit.
To check on the HSA’s progress, visit its website at shawmonthsa.wikispaces.com.