At the end of a busy December day at Marion C. Seltzer Elementary School, teachers and staff were faced with an eruption of chaos. First, a fight broke out between students at dismissal. At the same time, as students, educators and guardians gathered for the school’s monthly food market at the other end of the building, someone reported threats of gun violence and staff had to race to secure the doors. This all occurred when the school’s only assigned security officer, who works part-time, had already left for the day.
Famika Bonner, an educator at Marion Seltzer, read this account of the day to the school board from an email on her cell phone. Bonner said it was from one of many emails teachers and staff sent after the incidents to district leaders about the lack of security at their school.
Bonner, who is also a CMSD parent, recounted her own worries. She said that the following week, a crossing guard was assaulted by a parent in front of the school during drop-off. CMSD security did not respond, and so the guard had to file a police report with Cleveland Police, she said. Signal Cleveland confirmed that Cleveland Police responded to the incident.
“We’re concerned with our safety, and we need help,” she told the board. “All we ask is for a full-time security officer. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Bonner’s comments weren’t the first complaints the school board has heard regarding safety and security this school year. Other parents and teachers have shared stories about cars parked in school lots being broken into, and at a board meeting in November, one commenter asked plainly if there was sufficient security across the district’s schools. CEO Eric Gordon responded that while the district had at least one officer per school, a minimum that is “getting us by,” he did not consider staffing levels to be sufficient.
For more information about CMSD’s efforts to improve security, read Cleveland Schools CEO says district will work with GCRTA and Cleveland Police to improve safety and security outside school hours
Lamont Dodson, CMSD’s chief of Safety and Security, said in an email to Signal Cleveland that the district currently employs 108 security officers, eight of whom work part-time. The district’s budget for the 2022-23 school year includes funding for 183 officers, leaving 75 vacancies. All security officers must complete a five-day training course with the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) within nine months of being hired.
The district’s safety department also has a mobile unit of sworn police officers who patrol the district and respond to emergencies and have the power to detain and arrest. There are currently seven mobile police officers covering the whole school district, said Dodson.
Dodson agreed that the low staffing levels are challenging. “But like other organizations facing staffing shortages, we do our best with current staffing levels, and we work cooperatively with the Cleveland [Division] of Police,” he said.
Who pays better than Cleveland Schools?
Jeff Perry, the business agent for the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union representing CMSD security officers, told Signal Cleveland that he believes the staffing shortage is largely due to low pay. Perry said there’s a consensus among officers in the union that the pay at CMSD is “ridiculous” and many have gone elsewhere to receive a living wage.
The starting pay rate for CMSD security officers is $17.19 per hour for full-time workers and $15.39 per hour for part-time workers. According to collective bargaining agreements submitted to the state, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district starts full-time security workers at a base pay of $22.73 per hour, with increases based on experience and OPOTA training completion. The Garfield Heights City Schools start their security officers at $17.03 per hour.
Akron Public Schools told Signal Cleveland that safety team members’ wages start at $16.06 per hour, with a $1 yearly increase for the first four years of employment.
Perry said he has consistently pushed for higher wages, with some success in the last round of negotiations.
“I said at the table when we agreed to it, we’re agreeing to this because it’s a step, but it’s not going to be nearly enough to stop the tide of people leaving. And it hasn’t been,” Perry said. “It seems like people on top are trying to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.”
Chief Dodson agreed that low wages pose a challenge to filling the security vacancies, but he did not comment on how CMSD’s wages compare to that of other school districts or security agencies. He also said other factors making the positions difficult to fill include drug-screening requirements and disqualifying offenses.
Scheduling challenges and low pay mean longer hours for security officers
Some officers are working longer hours to cover open shifts at the schools. While overtime hours are never mandatory for officers, many have taken the extra hours to increase their income. “There are officers working 30, 40, 50 hours a week because they don’t make enough money otherwise,” Perry said.
Perry said the union also had to push for the OPOTA training requirement in contract negotiations so that officers feel safe and prepared. “For almost all of the schools, they only have one person there for, you know, 300 to 500 kids.”
In a written response to the public comments, Gordon said the district is still actively hiring for security officer positions and that it will hold its Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy again in February.
Dodson told Signal Cleveland in an email that the Department of Safety and Security continues to conduct bi-weekly interviews for officer positions and attends job fairs for the City of Cleveland and CMSD.
Gordon answered parent questions about security and safety outside school buildings in a live stream Q&A session Thursday evening. Read Signal Cleveland’s report on the meeting.