They can be found in shopping malls, office buildings, and government housing units. They wear badges on their uniforms and sometimes carry handcuffs and nightsticks. But they are not police officers: They are security guards, and they work for private companies to provide customers with sound protection at a low cost. And public schools concerned about student safety could benefit from their expertise.

Private security, including both commercial and home security protection, is the second fastest growing industry in America today, expanding at 8% per year. In 1994, the private security industry did more than $50 billion in business and it is estimated that there are now three private security guards on the beat for every government police officer.

The reason for this is simple. Building owners who contract with private security companies are assured of constant and reliable protective service. Unlike police officers, who can only respond after trouble has occurred, security guards tend to prevent trouble by remaining on a building's premises at all times. Crime prevention becomes their main task.

The Starrett City apartment complex in Brooklyn's dangerous 75th precinct illustrates how effective private security can be. The complex houses 20,000 tenants and reported a total of 67 robberies in 1994. In the neighborhood just outside the complex there were 2,548 robberies and a higher rate of robberies per resident. The complex has been described as an oasis in a vast wilderness for its dramatically lower crime rate. Starrett City resembles an affluent suburb, though 90% of its residents receive rent subsidies. The residents are well aware of the reason for their island of safety: Nearly 90% of tenants surveyed believed they would not be safe without their private security guards.

This demonstrated effectiveness has led some schools districtssuch as New York Cityto hire private security guards to help police school violence. Tragic headlines such as those from the recent schoolyard shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, have many parents understandably concerned about their children's safety.

The Detroit school district, which employs 172 public safety officers in 37 schools, should consider contracting out for security. The safety officers, as employees of the district, earn a combined $5.4 million annually. According to the Detroit Board of Education, noncash benefits equal $2.1 million, or 40% of the security officers' salaries. With savings from privatization often exceeding 15%-20% of total costs, the district could reap $1.5 million annually with privatization. Private firms also have a reputation for providing superior quality services.

Contracting for security could also save Detroit Public Schools the cost of its expensive fleet of security vehicles. According to district records obtained by MPR the cost of just 15 (of the 24) cars used for district security exceeded $370,000. (The cost of the remaining nine is either listed as "unknown" or are leased for a price not disclosed by the Detroit Public Schools.) Selling them off would provide the district with a large, one-time cash infusion. If the sale of security automobiles equaled just 50% of known assets the district would receive $185,000.

The expense of security cars goes beyond lease and purchase costs; they must be maintained and operated. Unfortunately, the Detroit Board of Education claims to have no record of what is spent on individual repairs, fuel, and basic maintenance such as oil and filter changes. Contracting out could relieve the Detroit Public Schools of these costs and alleviate some record-keeping burden.

Private security can save money, but can it do the job? Private guards can and do make arrests, conduct investigations, write tickets, and perform most other police functions within their patrol areas. Presence is the greatest contribution of a private security firm. As watchful eyes, they can raise the cost to a student of breaking a school's rules or committing a crime. That cost? The increased probability that he or she will be caught. But the private security guards must often contend with several forms of accountability: They likely must abide by the regulatory authority of the local police commission, as well as meet the contractual obligations of their customer. In addition, unlike government police officers they can be held accountable for large financial awards for civil abuses.

The booming growth in the private security business suggests that companies are satisfying their clients with first-rate protection at reasonable costs. Detroitand other school districts with security needsshould contract with private security firms for the good of their employees, taxpayers, and most importantly, their students.