Enga (right) at the 2016 SEIU Convention in Detroit.

Enga Chatman, Security Officer, Lynwood Unified School District

“I miss being on the campus, interacting with students. You build a bond with them,” says Enga Chatman, who works as a Security Officer at Cesar Chavez Middle School, part of Lynwood Unified School District.

For Enga, keeping the school a safe and secure place for all students often means being a mentor. “I always encourage them to be better, to be productive and change their attitude,” she says on approaching a student in trouble. She describes talking to a student once who said he wanted to be a drug dealer. “He’s smarter than that, and I made sure he knew that. They just need someone to believe in them, that they can do better.”

During normal times, Enga would work five days a week. Her routine consisted of morning inspections of the campus for vandalism or break-ins, making sure students got to class, catching the occasional tardy ones, and monitoring activities during breakfast and lunch times. With all Lynwood schools closed, Enga has been providing security for the district’s nutrition program.

“Honestly, I’m not too happy about it,” she says with some frustration in her voice of how the COVID-19 crisis has affected her life. In her 20-some years as a Lynwood Unified employee, the crisis has forced her to spend her longest time ever away from her job, and away from the life she enjoys. When not working, she would enjoy outings with her family, attending church, and doing charity work, like participating in her church’s food bank.

Health crisis or not, I’ve always known my job is essential.

With a reduced work schedule, Enga has had more time reflect on her life in public education, and to think more broadly on where she fits in. “Health crisis or not, I’ve always known my job is essential,” she says confidently. Security Officers at Lynwood Unified deal with young people who, she says, are often angry or misguided. They have problems at home or are living in foster care, fall into the wrong crowd, and lack the support they need. For many Lynwood students, the school is their only safe-haven, but according to Enga, some of these “troubled kids” make it unsafe for other kids. “They’re looking for attention, but it needs to be positive attention and not attention that feeds into their worst impulses.”

Her tough love approach is why she thinks the school district needs to do more to strengthen and enforce their disciplinary policy. Here’s how she thinks about it: “Let’s say a student gets caught with a weapon in school that threatens the safety of other students and staff. If the punishment isn’t firm enough, it sends a message that it’s not a big deal, students don’t learn the consequences of their bad decisions, and the same thing keeps happening.” To her, inadequate discipline makes the school environment more dangerous.

“We have a tough job, so we need the administrators and the school board to listen to us and have our backs,” says Enga. She believes Officers need more training on how to handle different situations when it comes to campus security. “You can’t take a mall security officer and put them in a school and expect they’ll perform the same. You’re dealing with young minds, and you need to have some compassion and understanding of where they come from.”

Parents don’t have a book or manual on how to be a parent, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to reach out to them.

Enga is also thinking beyond security and how schools can better engage students, parents and the entire community in education. Improving connections with parents is key. “Parents don’t have a book or manual on how to be a parent, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to reach out to them,” says Enga. Although the district does have Parent Involvement Specialists and programs for parents, she says the parents that need the most guidance aren’t being reached. Another area for improvement is involving young people in their education and tailoring the experience to their needs and aspirations. For Enga, that means recognizing that not all students learn in the same way and ensuring that every student has the resources and support they need to reach their fullest potential.