DURING the three years that Cathy Murphy was principal at Germantown High School, a student committed suicide by hanging himself on the auditorium stage and a boy suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound during an after-school brawl.

Gangs clashed. The usual troublemakers and hall-walkers kept Murphy and her staff busy.

But, for two of those years, she had help: safety-support staffers from We Over Come, a nonprofit community-based organization from West Philadelphia.

Murphy was so impressed with the added muscle and mentoring that We Over Come provided that when she transferred to George Washington High School in September, she took five members of the organization with her.

"They're strong, they're firm, they mean business, but they're very supportive to the students," she said.

And they are being used more and more to keep order in Philly's public schools. This year the school district has more than doubled the number of people from community organizations working alongside 450 district police officers.

At last count, 171 members of seven community organizations were assigned to 101 schools, according to James Golden, the district's chief safety executive. It's an investment that will cost the district $2.4 million this year.

Three private, school-management organizations have also hired a combined 34 safety-support staffers at a cost of $636,000.

As the number of safety-support staffers has grown, so have reports of their skill in calming some of Philly's toughest school hallways. But so have concerns about their backgrounds and training, including a challenge from the school police officers' union.

The safety-support workers aren't police; they don't make arrests or conduct investigations. Safety-support staffers do lower-level work: patrolling buildings, keeping hallways clear, and mediating disputes.

They are meant to serve as models for the kids, positive examples of adults from the neighborhood who also care enough about the students to spend their weekdays back in school.

The safety-support staffers are paid much less than school officers, however.

Some safety-support staffers, such as the Top of the Clock workers assigned to South Philadelphia High School, don business attire to walk the halls.

"Because of their age group, they are able to interact with students at a level that most of these old-timers can't," said Margie Wright, dean of students at Washington High in the Northeast. Wright has worked at the school since 1976.

"They are able to just pull students aside and walk with them and calm them down," she said.

Even the students have noticed: "There's no more smoking in the hallways," said Brittany Pooler, 16, an 11th-grader at South Philadelphia High School. "It's really changed."

District chief executive Paul Vallas has credited the 205 safety-support employees with helping reduce school crime.

Through Jan. 5, serious incidents across the district have dropped 5 percent compared with the same period last year, Golden said.

At 43 historically tough schools that use school-based community policing - in which safety-support staffs meet with school and city police officers and others to discuss preventing crimes - incidents are down 4 percent.

"We've had very few negative experiences" with our safety-support workers, Vallas said during an interview.

"First of all, we're hiring people from the community. They have a vested interest in the schools. These individuals know the schools, they know the kids, they know the communities," Vallas continued. "You see it in their performance; you see it in their commitment."

There are those, however, who are concerned about Vallas' reliance on community members for security. Some critics contend he is really trying to save money by hiring lower-paid community- organization staffers.

The daily cost to the district for each safety-support staffer is $112 compared with $272 for a district police officer, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

And critics said community-organization members don't receive the same training or background investigations as do school police officers.

There have been complaints about the conduct of some of the safety staffers:

Hasan Langston, a We Over Come employee, was dismissed last school year after he made crude sexual advances to a female faculty member at University City High School, Gallard confirmed.

* Michael Anderson, another We Over Come employee working at Lincoln High School in October, was arrested there for interfering with city police officers. It was later learned that Anderson had been arrested twice before being hired, though he had not been convicted, Golden said. He no longer works in the schools.

* At Olney High this fall, an employee of ASPIRA, another community-based organization, was let go after allegations that he was dealing in drugs, said Golden, who declined to name that man.

University City High School teachers had other concerns with We Over Come, which started working there in March 2005, said Jeff Rosenberg, a health and physical-education teacher.

"All of a sudden there were young adults dressed in very informal street attire in the school, and we had absolutely no clue who they were," recalled Rosenberg. "They were walking around interacting with our students. They would stand like guards, and teachers were very concerned about who they were. They didn't have badges."

Vallas was disbelieving when told this, saying that all safety-support staff members are properly introduced to school staffs.

In April, a complaint by the School Police Association of Philadelphia - the union that represents school police officers - concerning the district's hiring of community-based employees will be heard in arbitration, said Mike Lodise, association president.

He said the union is troubled that the new employees are doing work that should be going to school district officers, and there are concerns that the community people have not had proper background checks.

"I have no problem if they were qualified, trained people with background checks," Lodise said. "Let's hire them as our people. If they're so good, let's put them on the payroll and put them in uniform."

Golden said all of the safety-support staffers have, in fact, undergone criminal-background and child-abuse checks. But they do not have to be fingerprinted, as school officers do, Golden said.

Since September, 30 of the 205 safety-support employees have left the district and been replaced for various reasons, ranging from discipline problems to leaving voluntarily, district officials said.

"There's always going to be problems when you try to do something different," said safe- school advocate Jack Stollsteim-er, who was appointed by Gov. Rendell to monitor city school safety.

"But I think the problems are all being addressed, and they're going to do a better job with the criminal-background checks."

Some people say the support staffers are ideally suited to work with kids, since they are from the same neighborhoods and have faced the same trials as the students.

Ryan Mayfield, a We Over Come employee, attended George Washington High in the late 1990s before his chronic truancy led to his being incarcerated for 16 months.

Mayfield, now 22, eventually got his high school equivalency diploma and says he shares his experiences with students as a cautionary tale.

"If I can get across to these kids that education is paramount - you need your education - that's key to me. I fought that. I had to learn," Mayfield said. "So now I'm telling these kids there's nothing in the streets - the streets are nothing."

Said Stollsteimer: "Those are the types of role models that have credibility with the kids." Referring to himself, he added: "A white former prosecutor does not have credibility with the kids."

So supportive is the former federal prosecutor that he has given $600,000 of his office's $1.2 million budget to fund the safety-support staffers this year. Stollsteim-er noted that similar efforts are under way in Washington, Atlanta and Dallas.

Inside Washington High, five We Over Come staffers work along with nine district police officers and other support staffers patrolling the long halls, the cafeteria and other nooks.

But they do more than that, said Gregory Garrett, the We Over Come supervisor at Washington High.

"We don't just come down on the kids," said Garrett, 34, a muscular man who also helps coach the school's football team. "We like to get a relationship with them. Basically, whatever they're missing at home, we try to provide for them. So if they're missing that father figure, we try to provide it for them."

Miles away, at South Philadelphia High School, the six safety staffers from West Philly-based Top of the Clock are also making their presence felt.

Jimmie Morgan, who leads the group, made his way through a crowded hallway recently, nattily dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, necktie and black overcoat.

"Fellas, fellas, let's go to class," he said to a group of boys who towered over him. They moved.

"Let's go!" he barked as he continued making his way through knots of slow-moving students.

Morgan, who has worked with Top of the Clock for seven years, described his hallway etiquette as an up-in-your-face approach. Still, he said: "We approach the students with a more cordial and respectful manner. We try to instill respect in them so they can respect us."

Some students said they feel unduly hassled by Morgan's people. Others have gotten with the program.

"They'll follow you around if you don't go to class," said Pooler, the South Philadelphia junior. "They followed me and my sister to make sure we went to class and did what we're supposed to do."

The principal agrees.

"It's a different kind of feel in using Top of the Clock - not that the school police officers aren't needed and wanted," said South Principal Alice Heller. "But it's sort of a yin-and-a-yang sort of thing.

"The school police officers are the authority figures in the uniforms," Heller said.

"And the Top of the Clock people dress very professionally in suits and ties, which is great because then the kids see them as sort of role models." *