By Christie Duffy
Half of the students at Woodrow Wilson High School don’t feel safe in school hallways or bathrooms. Four out of five don’t feel safe walking to and from school according to a recent Rutgers survey.
“Safety is a basic condition that we owe our students. If they don’t feel safe, they’re not gonna be focused on their lesson. They’re not gonna be focused on what their teacher is saying,” said Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.
Since his appointment last August, Rouhanifard has already installed 100 new security cameras and today, proposed installing even more. He’s proposed that all students carry ID cards to gain access to school buildings. And he plans on faculty and staff receiving more training on how to handle in-school incidents.
In the city of Camden, “safe corridors” have been implemented — designating streets, marked by signs, where police can concentrate their patrols to protect students. Schools and fire houses are labeled as “safe havens,” where kids can run if they feel in danger.
“The whole purpose of this initiative is to make sure the school students can get to and from their homes,” said Camden Police Officer Lucas Murray.
The sharpest critics of the security plan in the room Thursday were the students themselves.
“In the PowerPoint I didn’t see much about drug addiction, which is a big issue in our city,” said Woodrow Wilson High School Class President Alesha Figueroa-Falcon. “We have kids that, you know, smoke marijuana and that’s the gateway drug. They end up smoking other things –they go to coke, heroin — and by the time you’re 30, you see kids from when you were in high school and they’re either dead or out on the streets.”
In North Camden, outside Molina Elementary School, one resident says this safe corridor is also a hot spot for drug sales.
“How you have a safe corridor on a drug set? You have a school here. And they sell drugs right in front of the school all day,” said Nathaniel Tirrent.
Just this month, Camden’s Metro Police made two separate drug arrests right outside two of the city’s elementary schools, chasing down suspects on foot for selling heroin and cocaine.
While last September a 4-year-old riding a school bus was grazed by a stray bullet.
But the police chief says crime in Camden has dropped by more than 30 percent. Camden County Police took over in the city last may, when the city’s police force was dissolved.
“We’ve been making tremendous progress since we’ve launched on May 1 of last year. Where we stand today, year-to-date our shootings are down 25 percent. Total crime is down 33 percent,” said Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson.
Camden’s Police Department is now up to 327 officers with plans to add 80 more this summer.
Residents say they do see a bigger police presence in the city.
“I see a lot of police officers and that makes me feel safe. I was just telling the chief how I appreciated that,” said Figueroa-Falcon.
In addition to making students feel safer, Rouhaniford also has plans to house homeless students, creating a public boarding school for high risk youth, here in the city of Camden which ranks among the poorest in the nation.