Philly School District expands mentorship program pairing police officers with students

Kevin Bethel, a retired Philadelphia Police officer and the District’s Chief of School Safety (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Kevin Bethel, a retired Philadelphia Police officer and the District’s Chief of School Safety (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

The School District of Philadelphia is expanding their mentorship program, which pairs school police officers with middle school students.

District officials said on Thursday this initiative is a long-term strategy to reduce gun violence in the city.

“Mentoring is so important,” said Kevin Bethel, a retired Philadelphia Police officer and the District’s Chief of School Safety. “The evidence identifies… if we just have one adult with a child, we can change the trajectory of that child forever.”

The program is the district’s effort to equip students with the “life skills necessary for their futures.”

The district also said the program is meant to build intergenerational relationships between police and Black and Latino students, but any student can volunteer.

The expansion arrives amidst a city and nationwide call for police-free schools. The Philadelphia Student Union started a petition to remove police and resource officers from schools in 2020.

For Bethel, building mentorships is one step towards reconstructing, not removing, the roles of “school safety officers,” who are police, in schools.

“We are going through a reimagining and a re-envisioning of school safety. We are constructing a program built on restorative practices, not about law enforcement, not about locking kids up,” said Bethel.

The mentorship program, L.E.A.D., Leaders Encouraging Achievement and Development, launched in 2020 at E. W. Rhodes Middle School and Hamilton Disston Elementary School. Benjamin Comegys and Rudolph Blankenburg elementary schools have now been added to the list.

Currently 15 officers and 40 students participate in the program.

The volunteer “school safety officers” are trained by an outside private mentorship organization, “Mentor Independence Region,” on de-escalation and trauma-informed dialogue. The mentors conduct hourlong sessions each week with a small group of students and engage them on a variety of topics.

In the 2018 – 2019 “School Support Census,” principals from 62 schools expressed a critical need for mentoring. “So we listened,” said Anjela Alvarado, Partnerships Manager of the Office of Strategic Partnerships.

Superintendent William Hite said this is not just about mentoring, but also connecting students with adults who have had similar lived experiences.

Ryan Smith is a mentor and school safety officer at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Strawberry Mansion High.

“I was a troubled youth, in regards to just the social ills of the neighborhood,” said Smith.

Smith found refuge with his own mentor, police officer Reggie McBride.

“Individuals like Reggie filled that void for me when my father wasn’t around. That was true mentoring,” added Smith, who began to choke up.

Smith said now he deals with a lot of kids facing trauma, similar to what he faced as a teen.

“I just keep it cool and I try to figure it out with them, and help them, and guide them through that,” said Smith.

On an everyday basis, Smith said, sometimes it’s just about asking students how they are.

Kevin Bethel said the district hopes to expand the mentorship program as quickly as possible, with now almost 300 trained officers ready to start.

The Philadelphia Student Union said they applaud the district and Kevin Bethel’s intentions to reduce criminalization in schools.

But Fred Pinguel, Executive Director of PSU, said, “Mentorship programs will not get us there.”

Pinguel said in order to decriminalize schools, the district should “focus resources on staff and programs that address climate issues holistically and shift away from its emphasis on school police.”

PSU’s #PoliceFreeSchools campaign calls for more school counselors and roles for community members to help manage school climate and safety.

The Our City Our Schools, or OCOS, coalition, agrees with the Philadelphia Student Union.

Pep Marie, OCOS coordinator, said the organization hears from students that they often feel criminalized in their schools.

Marie said, “We encourage Kevin Bethel and school district leadership to look beyond minor changes and trust the lived experiences of the young people of Philadelphia.”

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