The final month: Police planning ‘exit strategy’ for GHS closing and beyond

 Capt. John Fleming of the 14th Police District says

Capt. John Fleming of the 14th Police District says "we're as prepared as we can be" for any potential issues when Germantown High closes. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

Since taking command of the 14th District last November, Philadelphia Police Capt. John Fleming was known to mention at community meetings that the area he oversees contains 55 public, private and parochial schools.

By month’s end, this number will drop by more than 5 percent due to the various school closings previously announced by the Philadelphia School District.

While the total of closings in the 14th District is numerically small (three), the impact could be significant, ongoing and highly visible.

That’s why local police already have plans in place to contend with various scenarios.

Officer assignments

On Friday, NewsWorks spoke with Fleming at district headquarters, coincidentally located a stone’s throw from Germantown High School, which along with adjacent Robert Fulton Elementary and John L. Kinsey Elementary in West Oak Lane will be shuttered this month.

Fleming brings almost two decades of law enforcement experience to the geographically vast district, which encompasses Germantown, Mt. Airy, West Oak Lane and Chestnut Hill.

He is currently collaborating with his officers and with PSD School Police supervisors to get what he termed an “exit strategy” in place for Germantown High School.

A 14th District police officer permanently assigned to GHS provides Fleming with real-time intelligence daily, keeping an eye out for any crimes that could signal something larger.

“We’re as prepared as we can be,” said Fleming, who may assign additional personnel to GHS in its final days. “There’s going to be a lot of emotion and a lot of anger.

“The emotion coupled with the anger could be a recipe [for trouble], so we’ll be there to dissuade anyone from any thoughts of vandalism or theft.”

Rivalry tension?

With current and would’ve-been students of GHS destined to attend either Martin Luther King or Roxborough high schools come September, a widespread concern is that tensions will escalate between students based upon gang affiliations and both real and imagined neighborhood boundaries, primarily between GHS and MLK students.

“As captain, I have to understand that ‘perceived’ is real in some people’s minds,” said Fleming, observing that what begins as perception can result in palpable violence.

Little can be done from the policing perspective until enrollment decisions are determined, though.

“Until enrollment is settled, I don’t think we can be proactive,” he said. “We’re stuck in a reactive mode.”

Planning ahead anyway

However, Fleming related that there are preemptive measures in place.

To complement district School Police, Fleming has several officers permanently assigned to school beats in the 14th District.

“I really count on them and their real-time intelligence,” said Fleming. “We try to be proactive: Same-day proactive. Each day is often a new challenge.

“Of course, what we keep hearing is that kids from Germantown can’t coexist with kids from MLK. Wherever problems crop up, that’s where I’ll have to step up my patrols, even if it means we have to end up stepping up patrol at MLK next year.”

‘Safe Corridors’ initiative

To deal with the 50-plus schools that will be opening in the fall, Fleming is field-testing a new initiative entitled “Safe Corridors.”

It’s a program designed to curb misbehavior at school dismissal time and discourage predators, bringing together members of the Police Clergy and volunteers from the community to monitor dismissals.

Fleming said the idea is loosely based on a program in the neighboring 35th District that safeguarded students in the Broad and Olney corridor.

“I just thought if we can provide a safe corridor,” he explained, “it shows that we’re trying to do something to try to provide as safe as an environment as possible.”

Safe Corridors had its “soft-opening” in May, being tried out at a few locations near schools and major transit spots to see what worked.

After a test-run at Roosevelt Middle School, the East Washington Lane middle school which is expanding into a K-8 next school year, Fleming said he received encouraging reports.

For the upcoming school year, he’s hoping to grow the program into a permanent feature, and will be seeking volunteers to augment the participants from the Police Clergy.

He urged that participants won’t have to take direct actions; rather, their presence will be a deterrent for wrong-doing.

“I think success will breed success, and breed larger numbers of more volunteers,” he predicted.

Concerns with empty buildings

While some schools may enjoy Safe Corridors this fall, it raises the concern of what becomes of empty ones. Said another way, will the vacant GHS building breed trouble?

“It could potentially be problematic,” replied Fleming, who indicated that talks are already underway between his staff and School Police to prevent vandalism and squatting at the site.

“Obviously, it’s the property of the school board, and what happens there is up to them, but what we have to do is essentially react to that,” he said. “I don’t know if they have additional plans for the school, as opposed to having a large, vacant eyesore.”

While unable to speculate the possibilities of a less-trafficked Germantown Avenue corridor, Fleming instead spoke to the impact on the neighborhood to which the school meant a lot.

“They’re frustrated about losing their school and losing their identity,” Fleming said. “GHS is part of the identity of the neighborhood: It’s a major institution in the neighborhood and losing that is like losing part of your identity.

“That’s where the frustration and the anger come in.”

As the final day of Germantown High School’s 99-year history approaches — the Class of ’13 will don caps and gowns on June 19 — NewsWorks will present a series of stories including interviews with grads and former students.

To that end, we’re asking you to send your memories via email (subject line: My GHS Memories), the comments section or call (215) 351-1293.

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