She Dares to Be Different
Alex Branaman, district chief for the Alachua County (Fla.)Public Schools, demonstrates that there are alternative ways tostructure a campus security force and deal with common campus safetyissues.
Alachua County (Fla.) Public Schools District Chief Alex Branaman is not your ordinary campus law enforcement executive. For one, she’s a woman in a male-dominated profession. Second, she is several years younger than most other campus or district police chiefs and security directors. Third, her district, as well as most of the districts in her state, employ school resource officers (SROs) to protect their campuses.
All of these factors mean she must approach safety and security issues in ways that may seem unusual to many K-12 school officials in other parts of the country. Despite these differences, Branaman is faced with the same challenges as her counterparts: social networking Web sites, cell phone technology, perimeter security, new construction, and maintaining awareness among district stakeholders about safety and security.
Although Alachua County Public Schools use SROs to patrol campuses, an arrangement that is rather common in Florida, it is not incorporated as often in the rest of the nation. Would you please elaborate as to how it works?
Branaman: I’m the only [law enforcement] person in the district who works for the district and is a sworn officer. It’s almost a consultant type of position.
The SROs are under the supervision of the local agencies we contract out to, and we pay half of their salaries. They report to their local agency, and I act as a liaison.
We have SROs in all of our middle schools and high schools. We also contract out several nonsworn security officers on different campuses.
So what is a day in your life like?
I am able to personally respond to and assist with calls from administrators at our schools. It’s a hands-on approach that is shared throughout the various levels of our district. Because our community is relatively small, I am able to make that happen.
Oftentimes, I partner with our Risk Management Safety Coordinator Jim Sumner to do community presentations, training or to do random surveys on school campuses. We have seen that our personal approach can help bring needed awareness to situations or issues that arise.
My day usually starts off by responding to something that might have occurred during the evening off-campus involving one of our students, like a burglary. The local law enforcement agency will call me to determine who is who, where they belong and what info we have to help them out.
Afterwards, it is just random as it unfolds. It could be a carjacking or a missing child. I communicate with the SROs and agencies directly if there is a major issue.
What are the biggest challenges you regularly face in your position?
Our challenge is keeping the communities actively interested in security and safety at the schools. We strive to work together with a comprehensive approach. The more eyes and ears we have involved with our schools, the more safety and security is provided.
The focus of the administration here at our schools is testing and education. When it comes to security, usually what gets their attention is something that hits the national news. They say, ‘OK, security is now important. We need to look at our fences.’ And that usually lasts for a while. Then it dies down until the next incident.
Our biggest challenge is just keeping the interest level up, so our teachers are looking out the windows and letting us know if they see anyone suspicious. To keep it at the top of their minds, we do training sessions with teachers, students and staff. Girls clubs, boys clubs, rotary clubs and other community groups will call, and I’ll come in and talk about the importance of school safety.
It’s no secret that today’s students are technologically savvy. Has the Internet and other technological developments posed as much of a problem for your district as it has for others around the country?
Cyberbullying, cyberstalking and just monitoring teen sites like MySpace and Facebook are part of our new challenges. We have the ability to put a filter on the school computer, so if the children are at the media center and they logon to the Internet and we notice a trend of a place where they are going, we can block access to that.
Where the problem usually comes in is with other technologies. Cell phones now have computers, so now students can use the Internet in their cars. They can take a picture of someone in the hallway and post it on MySpace.
If we see there is a problem, we’ll address it. We’ll pull the parents into classes and teach them about the lingo kids are using on the Internet and what to look out for when they’re at home. That costs no money, other than the time it takes to put together a presentation and the time for someone to talk about it.
Does your district allow cell phones on campus?
Students can have their cell phones; they just can’t use them until after school hours. It’s a big issue, and there’s a lot of debate on either side. If there is some type of emergency going on at the school, then the cell phones come out, and the information gets out really fast.
But we have so many kids involved in good things — after-school activities such as football, soccer and volleyball. They need their cell phones to have their parents pick them up.
What are some of the big projects you are working on right now?
This year has involved a lot of fencing. Most schools have the outer perimeter fencing around the whole campus. The trend has been to bring the fencing in close so there is one entry/exit point for each school. That way we can control everyone’s behavior and see who is coming and going.
With fences it is important not to take away from the campus. I do it in such a way that it is attractive. It’s still a fence, but it is appealing to the eye. Fences have cut down on vandalism and incidents that occur on the weekend while the campuses aren’t heavily monitored.
We plan on doing more fencing projects down the road. A lot of the campuses were built 30-60 years ago. We’re trying to retrofit campuses that have an open layout.
With the new schools, we start at the beginning now. We work right in there in the planning process, and that has been extremely helpful. I’m able to sit around a table and explain to them what my concerns are — that I want this closed off here. We’re designing the layout better so there is no retrofit. Security is included in the plan.
Being that you’re a woman in a predominantly male occupation and you have to work with a wide variety of individuals in the construction planning process, do you ever experience push back because of your gender or youth?
It is often funny to me how people have a perception of what a ‘Security Person’ is supposed to look like or how old he or she is supposed to be. Oftentimes I receive invitations or requests for public speaking engagements or telephone calls or letters addressed to ‘Mr.’ Branaman. I politely correct them while at the same time I quietly and politely hope to change their perceptions.
The security and law enforcement fields can only benefit from ideas from and positions being filled by diverse people from all backgrounds, ages and genders. I have learned that everyone sees things a little bit differently. Therefore, just imagine the possibilities of combining the knowledge, insights and resources that are out there and available. Everyone has something important to share.
Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the unabridged version of this article, please refer to the May/June 2007 issue of Campus Safety magazine. To subscribe, go to https://secure2.bobitweb.com/campussafetymagazine/subscribe/.