Even before the video emerged this fall of a South Carolina high school girl being thrown to the ground by a white police officer while sitting at her desk, before the story of a Muslim boy in Texas arrested in September for bringing to school a handmade clock, before an Oklahoma City school resource officer allegedly punched a 16-year-old in the face, Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel had had enough.
As a Philly cop for 29 years, Bethel had witnessed the escalation of the school safety movement, intended to prevent the sort of carnage that occurred at Columbine in 1999. In Philadelphia, zero tolerance for guns had morphed into a prohibition on other tools that might cause harm—like pointy-tipped scissors—and to other types of behavior that are more about adolescent defiance than actual violence. By 2013, Philadelphia police were arresting 1,600 students a year, as young as 10 years old, more than half of whom were first-time offenders.
It was a stark and literal illustration of the schools to prison pipeline: One minute, a child who may be struggling at home acts out at school, the next he’s being hauled out in handcuffs and thrown into a holding cell.
“We’re supposed to be the adults here, the ones who know better,” Bethel says. “A child could be getting abused at home, have no food at home, and then we don’t even ask them questions before arresting them? I’ve watched us use the stick for discipline for decades. But the stick hasn’t worked.”
So Bethel, who two years ago began overseeing the 84 Philly cops who work with schools, decided to upend the system as we know it. Today, Philadelphia is one place in America where an incident like that in South Carolina is increasingly less likely to occur. Since the start of school last year, Philadelphia police officers no longer take part in disciplining students for nonviolent “code of conduct violations”—like refusing to put away a cell phone or leave a classroom. All school resource officers are trained in mediation and de-escalation, something not mandated by Pennsylvania or 27 other states. And first-time juvenile offenders accused of any in-school crime are no longer arrested. Instead, they’re sent to a pre-arrest diversion program that evaluates the root of their behavior and sets them up with social services.
Launched in the spring of 2014, the program has already been more effective than even Bethel anticipated. Last school year—the first full year of diversion—police made 858 fewer arrests, a more than 50 percent drop. (This was the program’s five-year goal.) Instead, 702 students were diverted for social services. And Bethel says only six of those 702 students had another incident at school that required police intervention—compared to the one out of five juveniles arrested in Pennsylvania who are re-arrested within two years. The School District’s chief disciplinarian says vastly fewer students were referred to her for expulsion hearings. And this year so far, 150 students have been diverted, which may be even more successful than last.
“If you change the trajectory of where a child goes, if they can find the inner soul to get through and graduate high school, it can make a real difference in their lives,” Bethel says.
The pre-diversion program takes one step further a program started by the District Attorney’s office several years ago, in which 85 percent of students arrested in schools went before a Youth Aid Panel, rather than to juvenile court. That kept their records clean, but they were still arrested first—by a uniformed cop, using handcuffs, who took their fingerprints and put them in a holding cell for up to six hours. “That’s traumatic for a young kid,” Bethel notes.
Now, if a student has no arrest record, they are sent home with a letter, and the promise of a visit from the Department of Human Services within 72 hours. During the visit, a social worker (sometimes accompanied by an officer) explains to the family what could have happened if the child had been arrested; talks to them about the child’s needs; and offers to enroll him or her in a 30 to 90 day treatment or other social service program from one of six community health providers. (The services are from existing DHS programs, which had been underutilized.) Rachel Holzman, the school district’s deputy chief for student rights and responsibilities, says 95 percent of families DHS has visited under the program have used the services. This school year, DHS will also refer children to Police Athletic League programs at 18 recreation centers around town.
“We are not all of a sudden going to solve all the ills at school,” Bethel says. “But we are changing what happens with these children. We’re asking them, ‘What’s going on with you?’”
The answer, Bethel says, is often a catalog of the ills that plague communities where most of these arrests stem from: Children in poverty, with parents who are addicted, or are not around, who are sexually or physically abused at home, who are carrying a gun not because they plan to use it, but because they fear for their safety on the walk to school. This important detail in a child’s life can make all the difference. “We can’t control the variables of these children’s neighborhoods,” Bethel says, “but we can control how we interact with them.”
Last school year, police made 858 fewer arrests, a more than 50 percent drop. Instead, 702 students were diverted for social services. And only six of them had another incident at school that required police intervention.
The national mania for arresting students follows the trajectory of our national mania for incarceration that has finally started to wane, with bipartisan talk of releasing nonviolent offenders and reducing prison sentences for drug crimes. After Columbine, states around the country passed legislation intended to prevent shootings in schools. (This has not especially worked.) In Pennsylvania, the Safe Schools Act and zero tolerance policies ballooned to include other weapons like pepper spray, and pointy scissors—even if the student never took it out of their bag. Under the policies, principals and school resource officers often felt they had no choice but to call in the cops for issues that would have been dealt with in-school in another generation.
But as the South Carolina case illustrated, school police officers are often not equipped to understand the very people they are sent to discipline (or protect). Deborah Jordan Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, says school resource officers in the state are not required to get training in de-escalation, adolescent behavior, prevention, the impact of trauma or the collateral consequences of arrest. (As The Atlantic reported after the South Carolina incident, only 12 states do this type of training.)
As in the rest of the American justice system, school arrests, suspensions and expulsions disproportionately affect black students; Klehr says African American girls are the fastest growing population in the justice system, and students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive out of school suspensions. “We see what happened in South Carolina happening in Pennsylvania routinely,” says Klehr, who regularly takes on city and state school systems for unfair discipline practices.
Under Bethel’s program, Good Shepherd Mediation Services has trained all 84 city cops and 300 school police officers in mental first aid and conflict resolution. They have also trained other school personnel to handle incidents themselves—which Bethel and Klehr agree is the ultimate goal. Last year, Bethel says school officials diffused 300 incidents that in other years would have required police assistance. Partly, that’s because his cops are no longer allowed in schools for code of conduct violations. But it is also because they now have the tools, and the mandate, to treat these incidents for what they are: School issues.
“We can’t arrest our way out of school climate issues,” says Klehr, who considers Bethel a visionary for his work in Philly. “We need to be providing school guidance counselors and teachers to support these kids, not arresting them. We don’t need police there in the first place.”
Even Bethel, a police officer for nearly three decades, sees the need for less police intervention, not more. Despite the success of his diversion program, Bethel insists it is just a stop-gap until we fundamentally change the way we approach juvenile justice. He’s retiring from the police department this month to work full-time on this issue, with the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab at Drexel University, which has been monitoring the diversion program. (This work will be funded through a three-year Stoneleigh Foundation Fellowship.)
Under Bethel’s program, Good Shepherd Mediation Services has trained 84 city cops, 300 school police officers and other school personnel in how to deescalate conflict. Last year, school officials handled more than 300 incidents themselves that in other years would have required police assistance.
For the next three years, he will continue working with Philly schools, but says his goals are much broader: prevention training for students; advocating for similar programs in other districts around the state and country, which have started to notice the progress in Philly; widening pre-arrest diversion to out-of school crimes, like first time theft; and lobbying for better school safety legislation. Along with the Education Law Center, Bethel says it is time to revamp the Safe Schools Act and zero tolerance policies to allow schools more leeway in disciplining students within their walls, and to keep more children out of jails. Klehr says she is working with the governor’s office on a bill that would require conflict mediation and adolescent training for school resource officers when Districts apply for state funding.
In the meantime, Bethel sees his work as both potentially life-changing—keeping a student in school, instead of in jail—and a (perhaps overly-optimistic) salve for oft-troubled police-community relations. “We have an opportunity to demonstrate to people that we are not who they think we are,” he says. “All those 700 kids we diverted last year, their first contact with the police department was a positive one. Their opinion of policing is going to change, and they will grow into adults with a much different perspective. ”
Header Photo: Flickr/Steven Depolo