Movement for police-free schools reaches Philadelphia

Advocates say there should be less security and more support personnel in schools, as Kevin Bethel works to revamp and retrain officers.

A Philadelphia Police Department cruiser is seen traveling down a Philly street.

A Philadelphia Police Department cruiser is pictured in this file photo. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This article originally appeared on The Notebook.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and subsequent law enforcement clashes with protesters, the move for “police-free schools” is gaining support around the country.

And now the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) is circulating a petition on asking for the School District to remove all police and school resource officers from schools and replace them with community members trained in de-escalation and other skills that support restorative justice.

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PSU is also calling for an end to the District’s legal agreement with the Philadelphia Police Department that details under what circumstances city police can be called into schools.

The petition went up late last week, and by Thursday afternoon, more than 9,300 people had signed it.

It states, in part: “We believe that black lives matter. We believe it’s time this country addressed the role of police in maintaining white supremacy and control in communities.”

The petition is clearly having an effect. Board of Education member Angela McIver, one of two board members who voted last year against making metal detectors mandatory at all District high schools, praised PSU at a Thursday joint committee meeting.

“I want to encourage the board and the School District to authentically engage our students and teachers in the conversation about what schooling could look like without policing,” McIver said. “I am so impressed by the Philadelphia Student Union. … I’m so proud of their burgeoning role as change agents in this city. We should not discount them.”

City Council member Kendra Brooks called for defunding school police at a protest on Wednesday. And the District’s head of security said he is open to having a dialogue with the group.

In several other cities, school districts have been cutting ties with police. The school board in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, voted to end its $1 million school resource officer contract. Denver’s school board may vote as early as Thursday on ending the contract that sends 18 city officers to middle and high schools. Four of Denver’s seven board members expressed support in a news conference. In Portland, The Oregonian reported, the superintendent said he was ending a similar program in which 11 armed officers patrolled that city’s high schools. In Pittsburgh,  Tiffany Sizemore, who leads the Juvenile Defender Clinic at Duquesne University, and Jeff Shook, associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote a public call for the district to divest funding from police.

Philadelphia’s school officers

In Philadelphia, no city police patrol schools. Instead, the District has a school security force of more than 350 people at a cost of $31 million. The officers are not armed, but they wear uniforms and carry handcuffs. And they staff the metal detectors that are mandatory in all city high schools and through which all students (and visitors) must pass each day upon entering the building.  There are 100 city police who are designated to respond when police are summoned to schools under the District’s legal agreement, called a Memorandum of Understanding.

Until last year, the school police were under the direct supervision of the Philadelphia Police Department. Since November, however, they have been led by a District employee, Kevin Bethel, a former Philadelphia deputy police commissioner who has built a national reputation for his commitment to changing the relationship between law enforcement and young people, especially those of color.

Kevin Bethel leads Philadelphia’s school police officers. (Courtesy of the Stoneleigh Foundation)

For the last seven years, both while Bethel worked in the department and after he left in 2016, he has worked on juvenile justice reform, breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, and promoting trauma-informed policing. In 2013, while still on the force and alarmed by arrest rates in city schools, he started a diversion program in partnership with the District, the police, the district attorney, and social services agencies for first offenders with minor infractions. The program had an immediate and dramatic impact, slashing annual school-based arrests from nearly 1,600 in 2013-14 to 251 in 2018-19.

The initiative started in 2014, not long after Superintendent William Hite arrived at the District, which was facing devastating budget cuts and had a “zero tolerance” discipline policy. Some Philadelphia schools were designated by the state as “persistently dangerous,” based on the number of reported serious incidents.

“I’ve always had the perspective that you don’t make schools better by arresting, or suspending, or expelling,” Hite said at Thursday’s board committee meeting. “You make them better by creating environments in schools where children and students feel comfortable, they feel respected, they feel like they have voice. So we immediately started a process to move from these restrictive environments to restorative environments in schools.”

Bethel is now Hite’s special adviser on school safety.

“My goal is to make us a national model,” said Bethel of the District’s security contingent that he now heads. “I said to the men and women who work for me that we can have a school safety entity that doesn’t drive kids into the school-to-prison pipeline and cause all the collateral damage to their lives and is instead a caring group that treats students with empathy and respect.”

Time to shift the mindset?

But while expressing high regard for Bethel and support for his initiatives past and present, activists and advocates are increasingly asking whether the time has come to shift the mindset and the resources away from law enforcement in schools and toward programs and personnel trained in social work, trauma counseling, mental health, and racial justice. They point out that $31 million is a lot of money.

“I have nothing negative to say about what Kevin Bethel is doing,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for ACLU of Pennsylvania and an expert in school discipline. “He’s trying to lessen the conflict between school security and students, to tamp that down. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.’

But, he added, especially in a District constantly scrambling to fully meet the needs of its students with available funds, “it doesn’t speak to the larger issue of whether spending money on school security is the best way to provide supports to students to help them move forward behaviorally and academically and to engage with education.”

Jordan was a co-author of a national ACLU study in March 2019. Using federal civil rights data, it found that 14 million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

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“The consequences for these funding decisions fall on the most vulnerable students,” the report said.

According to the 2020-21 consolidated budget, the District spends $74.1 million on counselors, nurses, and psychologists. The budget indicates that it plans to add 16 psychologists to the 133 on payroll this year.

Social workers are not a regular part of school staffing. The District started a pilot program in 2017 that placed them in 22 schools, and a few others are stationed in schools in connection with specific community programs. According to the budget, there are just 12 social workers on the District payroll and one supervisor.

In a statement, Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said: “It is possible to achieve real safety and security in schools without the violence and racism inherent in a policed environment. It can happen through increased partnerships with community supporters, implementing preventative and restorative practices, and funding trained helping professionals. It calls for work with students, parents, and communities to create a vision of just schools that we define and build together.”

She said that “police in school are not there to be a resource to students, they are there to police students – to control, surveil, and enforce a punitive culture of compliance.” Students going back to school in the fall should be welcomed back “with patience and support, not law enforcement.”

At a protest in front of District headquarters on Wednesday, Council member Brooks advocated defunding the police and instead putting those dollars toward social workers and counselors.

“Black kids who have been suffering through poverty and trauma do not deserve to be overpoliced,” Brooks said.

For its part, the Board of Education issued a response to the PSU petition, saying that it recognizes the “seismic shift in conversation about policing in communities of color that has happened in these past weeks” and promising “more conversation on this critical topic.” It said that the board is “reviewing the recommendations” in the petition.

Bethel’s plans for the force

At a Policy Committee meeting of the board on May 14 – before Floyd’s death and the subsequent unrest – Bethel outlined how he planned to reform the school police force. For starters, he said, officers’ uniforms will change to a “softer” look and their training will be continuous and include adolescent development, trauma-informed policing, and de-escalation and mentoring skills. Officers also will no longer be called “school police,” although that change is to conform with state law, which now requires individuals with that title to have police academy training and state certification, which the District’s workforce does not. Instead, they will be “school security officers.”

He gave an updated presentation at the board’s joint committee meeting Thursday.

Bethel explained that he has involved his security officers in a Youth Court, where students are held to account by peers for their infractions. It is a component of a restorative justice approach to discipline, supplementing a Youth Court network that already exists under the District’s Office of Climate and Safety in nearly two dozen schools.

“It’s an honor working with young people, not bringing them into the system, and treating them with dignity and respect,” Bethel told the board.

In an interview, he elaborated on how mortified he was to learn seven years ago while heading the police division that supervised the District officers about the high numbers of school-based arrests – an average of nine per day, based on a 180-day year – and to learn that they included students as young as 10, the youngest age allowable under state law.

He realized that students would be automatically arrested and often expelled if they brought a weapon to school, even if they never used it. And under the state’s Safe Schools Act and the District’s Student Code of Conduct, so many things are considered weapons – scissors, pocket knives, mace.

They were carried often by students who had been bullied and wanted to protect themselves, or by young women who were afraid as they walked to and from school through treacherous territory.

“Many of these students come from challenging neighborhoods, and they don’t see their Cub Scout knife or the mace their mom gave them for protection on the way to school as a weapon,” Bethel said.

He also made sure that Philadelphia’s Memorandum of Understanding with police changed the minimum age to 12.

“When we started the [diversion] program, we were steadfast in staying core to the process of not arresting kids for low-level offenses, and that process continues,” he said.

At the same time, he defends the need for a law enforcement presence in schools, pushing against the idea that funds for security should be diverted to other types of personnel.

“I don’t know that it has to be either/or. It comes down to the entity you put in the school,” he said, “how they are comporting themselves and working within the environment to make it safe. To create a robust learning environment, the school has to be safe.”

He vows to hire and retrain officers so they become part of the fabric of more robust supports and social services for students within schools. He is making sure they understand adolescent development and are sensitive and responsive to the volatility of teens.

And his cadre of officers, he said, is reflective of the communities in which they work, not outsiders.

“A large percentage are women of color,” Bethel said. “All of my folks come from the community. We are hiring in the community.” Very few live outside Philadelphia, he said, and many have worked in other capacities in District schools. Some “have their own trauma they have to deal with [coming from] tough areas of the city.”

Bethel also pointed out that not all his personnel are deployed in schools and that they perform a variety of necessary functions. Some are investigators or trainers, some are in emergency management, some are on a detail that guards school buildings and property around the clock. He said 299 officers are dedicated to schools.

The officers are assigned centrally, and school principals don’t have the option of declining them. At first, deployment was based primarily on offense rates in schools, but Bethel worked to take into account a wider range of variables, including neighborhood conditions, creating a “harm” score for each school.

“There are geographic areas that have significant challenges, like the opiate corridor,” he said. “There is a comprehensive process to determine who should get officers and how many in that place. In some cases, we may recognize a school did not need any; some get half or partial days at a school.”

There are some elementary schools in high-crime areas that beg for a full-time officer, mostly to keep an eye out for neighborhood problems and be alert for potential intruders and keep track of neighborhood feuds, not to enforce student discipline.

Philly schools with no police

For those saying that schools can be kept safe without using a law enforcement entity to control students, there is an example right here in the city. The charter network Mastery Schools operates 21 schools with 11,500 students, making it larger than most Pennsylvania school districts. Most of its schools are former District schools turned over to the organization in hopes of turnaround, so they are required to take all students in the catchment area. Its schools have never had school police, said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, and – except for one, Mastery-Gratz – do not use metal detectors.

There is some irony to this, because many parents choose charter schools because they believe them to be safer. Gordon says the safety is created through a welcoming, trusting school culture.

Mastery Schools CEO Scott Gordon. (Courtesy of the Notebook)

“Our belief is that schools are to educate and nurture young people through love, relationships, and high expectations,” Gordon said. “The police role is to address crime. The two are very different.”

Disciplinary issues are handled by an assistant principal for school culture and a team of deans. All schools have social workers, therapists, and programming for emotional support. Staff is trained in trauma and “cultural context,” he said.

The culture team has a full day of training once a month, they use data to identify students who might need additional support, and there is what Gordon called “a proactive vision” for teachers to be supportive in their classrooms. The team sets schoolwide expectations, provides opportunities for student leadership, and uses positive behavior supports in its approach to discipline.

Like the District, Mastery has a Memorandum of Understanding with police, which is required under the state’s Safe Schools Act.

“We have had instances when we had to call the police, when students do things that are considered crimes, like bringing drugs into the building,” said Saliyah Cruz, Mastery’s deputy chief of student development, who oversees discipline policies and school culture.

Students who are arrested or who continue to have serious behavioral issues are given support and may be referred to placement in an alternative program that is operated for Mastery under a contract with an outside vendor, or to a District-run alternative school.

For morning student arrival and afternoon dismissal, Mastery hires a security firm that sends trained personnel to stand guard in neighborhoods where there has been a history of problems, Gordon said, “to make sure everyone is safe getting into the building and walking home.”

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done,” he said. “George Floyd’s murder and the conversation that has ensued pushed us to recognize we can do more around training and that we have more work to do.”

Sharif El-Mekki has worked as a principal in both District schools and at Shoemaker, a grade 6-12 school run by Mastery for nearly two decades. He also attended Overbrook High School in the 1980s and remembers when city police would come into schools at will and search classrooms for alleged perpetrators – something that is no longer permitted and is a big reason for the MOUs between districts and their local police force.

“People are taking second looks at long-held assumptions around police and school police, and the relationship of the two,” El-Mekki said. “I love the idea of them being replaced or retrained.”

School police can be assets, he said, describing one when he was at Turner Junior High decades ago who “didn’t wear a uniform, acted as a de-escalator, engaged with the community, and knew everybody. I never saw him handcuffing any child.”

Another he once worked with, a woman, lived a block away and knew before school opened the next day of any neighborhood tensions that could spill over into the building.

At the same time, as principal of Mastery-Shoemaker, he saw how keeping discipline in-house, avoiding the presence of a law enforcement entity, and redeploying resources made a huge difference for students.

“We had a social worker and an amazing culture team,” said El-Mekki, who left Shoemaker last year after 10 years to head the Center for Black Educator Development. “Students felt safe, and they felt empowered to contribute to the safety because they looked at the space as THEIR space. They weren’t visitors who needed to be controlled, they had agency and pride about their school community and felt responsible for keeping our community safe.”

Longstanding conflict over metal detectors

Bethel’s May 14 testimony before the board’s Policy Committee was in the context of proposed revisions to Policy 814 regarding the use of metal detectors, now required in all high schools. Bethel had urged changes that “establish a transparent and standardized weapons screening process [that] aims to improve student security while promoting each student’s dignity and minimizing negative effects of the screening process.”

He briefed the board both in May and June on how the school security officers are being retrained, including in adolescent development, so they understand that teenagers can be “risk-takers” and often “don’t learn from others’ mistakes,” and are able to respond accordingly.

He said they are changing how the officers conduct the scans, so that they treat students respectfully, greeting them with kindness so that they start their school days off in a positive way.

“How they feel when they’re coming in and encounter our officers really can make the day,” Bethel said.

Like at airports, signs will warn students of all the banned items. His work on the diversion initiative showed him that so many students who had been arrested over the years were carrying items that they might not have known were not permitted. He is considering an amnesty box.

“By the time young people come back in September, they’re going to see a whole different environment,” Bethel told the board. “Even now with additional issues around COVID and possibly having them do some other activity when they come in. The last thing we want to do is have those scannings adding to that anxiety.”

He noted that they do sometimes uncover weapons, “but haven’t seen any come in with a gun this year, we’ve had two in previous years.”

While Bethel is working hard to make the scans as humane as possible, others say they create an atmosphere of control and distrust and should be banned altogether.

The metal detectors were installed during a tough-on-crime era in the 1990s.

Philadelphia started using wands in three schools in 1994; the Board of Education started a pilot program with detectors and X-ray machines in 1997 in two schools, Shallcross, a disciplinary school, and Benjamin Franklin High. All high schools got detectors in 1999 after the shooting of an assistant principal at Bartram. This happened about a year after state legislators preoccupied with school safety issues passed bills that stiffened penalties for students who bring weapons to school and allocating money for districts that they could use to buy metal detectors.

Ben Franklin High became a central player in the most recent conflict over the detectors last year, when the special admission high school Science Leadership Academy was relocated into its building. SLA was one of three city high schools that chose not to use its metal detector and didn’t want to use it in its new location, which would have created the untenable, inequitable situation of only scanning some of the students entering the same building.

PSU and allied activists were against making the use of metal detectors mandatory. A few other students and parents testified on the opposite side, saying that the metal detectors served as a deterrent and made them feel safer.

Indeed, opinions are split; Mastery’s Gordon said that they had briefly removed the metal detectors for a time after taking over Gratz High School in 2011 from the District, but parents at a community meeting asked that they be reinstated.

Jordan, of the ACLU, points to research showing that students of color and poor students are more likely to go to schools with tough security, even when controlling for crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

“I think about that when I think about what kids confront in a school building,” Jordan said. “The school police officer should not be the first person they see, especially for certain kids for whom police have too great a role in their lives.”

He also cited research questioning whether metal detectors are even effective. The 2018 report from the Federal Commission on School Safety cited one study “concluding that metal detectors have no apparent effect on reducing violence on school grounds.”

When the Philadelphia school board voted 7-2 to make metal detectors mandatory for all schools, PSU students and their leaders erupted in protest, taking over the meeting and forcing the members to exit the room and resume conducting business elsewhere.

Right now, rethinking the use of metal detectors doesn’t seem to be on the table, but Bethel said in an interview that “everything is open to re-evaluation. For all intents and purposes, metal detectors were put in almost 20 years ago and just like anything else, there’s been an evolution in what it means for our children [and how they may contribute to] anxieties and trauma when they come into the space.” For now, he is working to make their use “more procedurally just.”

Although he said he consulted some student leaders in formulating the new policies around metal detectors and the direction of his work, students from PSU were not among them. Saying he was “not unnerved” by the thousands of signatures on their petition, Bethel expressed a willingness to meet with the group and work with them, both in an interview and at the board’s committee meeting Thursday.

“I appreciate their energy,” Bethel said of the PSU students. “I hope as we go through our transformation, they will see that we are not that force in the school, and we can work together around this area and other areas as well. “

Fred Pinguel, PSU’s executive director, who took this position after the protest at the board meeting last year, said his group was also open to dialogue.

“We’re generally asking for the School District to commit to police-free schools,” he said. “I think we don’t want to be in the position to make specific policy demands. But some things we have identified is that the District direct more resources and hiring non-police staff to serve in some capacity that would contribute to improving school climate.”

Asked whether his group was with Bethel or against him, Pinguel said, “I think we want to work with the District to start. We definitely want to find ways we can be collaborators and address this issue. We believe young people shouldn’t be policed in our schools, and we are opening to engaging in a process that includes our students and other stakeholders in figuring out what that exactly means.”

Bethel expressed willingness to talk and work with everybody.

“Young people’s voices are not going away, and they have a lot of demands, and a lot of them make sense,” he said. “We have a responsibility to listen to them. We definitely can look to change and adapt and try to meet some of those issues that impact our young people on a daily basis. If we don’t listen to what young people say, we’re not really servicing them.”

Editor’s note: Harold Jordan is a former chair of the Notebook board.

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