Youth advocacy group pushes for a complaint system about school police officers

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Jahyad Thomas-Thornton, a member of Philadelphia Student Union, stood on the steps of District headquarters on a sunny afternoon in May to lead a chant before a crowd of about 30 people.

Amandla,” he shouted. “Awethu,” the crowd responded.

It was a South African Zulu rallying cry meaning “power is ours” that was used to protest apartheid. Thomas-Thornton used the chant to celebrate a victory much closer to home — the District’s implementation of a school police complaint system that was initiated by PSU.

“This complaint system will give students the ability to hold any school police officer who abuses their rights accountable,” said Thomas-Thornton, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School.

The idea for the complaint system came about after an alleged attack of Ben Franklin student and PSU member Brian Burney by school police officer Jeffrey Maciocha in 2016. Concerned about the incident, PSU met with District Superintendent William Hite and presented a list of demands detailing what it wanted the District to do in response. On that list was the implementation of a school police complaint system, and Hite agreed the District would create it.

PSU also suggested that the District follow the complaint procedure from the Oakland Unified School District, which was created after the shooting of a 20-year-old man outside of a school by a school police officer. It is considered a model by the ACLU.

Karyn Lynch, chief of the District’s Office of Student Support Services, and Rachel Holzman, chief of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, organized a student task force, consisting of members of the Philadelphia Youth Commission and Hite’s student advisory board.

The task force met with District administrators and school police officers to create a protocol to give students recourse when they disagree with how a school officer handled a situation. Lynch said they also reviewed other complaint procedures besides the Oakland Unified model. The meetings were held from October 2016 to April 2017.

Lynch said that the District has involved students in the process because “it’s indicative of what we do in the Philadelphia School District, which is to give as much opportunity [for students to be heard] as possible.”

The complaint system was launched in early April, with a complaint form for students to fill out on the Office of School Safety’s website.

Any student who wishes to file a complaint against a school police officer can fill out the form with name, address, email, and other basic information, along with a description of the incident and the names of any witnesses.

The information is then sent to Holzman and Brendan Lee, executive director of school safety. The Office of School Safety, which is in charge of school police operations, will then assign an investigator. Holzman acts as a point of contact for the student who is filing the complaint.

The new system promises that the District will make its best effort to provide a written or verbal response within 30 days of the complaint unless more time is needed; how much time is unspecified. If more time is required, the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities will inform the complainant.

Tamir Harper, a student involved in developing the complaint system, said he was happy with what’s been done, but he recognizes that the process isn’t finished.

“The protocol we’ve created is pushing it forward,” said Harper, a junior at Science Leadership Academy and a member of the Philadelphia Youth Commission.

“I am satisfied with what the District has already done. But there is more work to be done.”

Though they lauded its implementation as a victory, PSU took umbrage with the District not only because the system doesn’t meet their expectations, but also because it was done without collaborating with the youth advocacy group.

“That’s not right, and that’s not going to fly with us,” said Thomas-Thornton.

Although Lynch said PSU was represented at the meetings, Julien Terrell, lead organizer of PSU, insists that no members of the organization were present.

He said that PSU was supposed to be involved in the task force, but received no invitation to participate, nor were they told when the complaint process was completed.

Alex Dutton, a public interest law fellow at the Education Law Center — who is assisting PSU with its demands — was doing research for PSU’s own complaint system when he stumbled upon the District’s complaint form online.

“If you don’t have the young people who were involved with pushing it in the first place, it’s not really a substantive process,” said Terrell.

During a School Reform Commission meeting in May, PSU finally received its invitation.

In response to a PSU member who called for the system to become a District policy, Hite welcomed PSU to attend future meetings about further developments in the system. He also said the process would be brought to a policy review board.

“That’s an issue that’s really important to us, and we do invite the [Philadelphia] Student Union students to be an active part of that,” Hite said.

PSU is calling for several changes to the District’s system of filing complaints:

  • Allow students and the public to file complaints with an option to do so anonymously.
  • Establish a community review board consisting of students, parents, and community members to oversee the complaint process.
  • Establish a procedure for sharing data with the SRC and the public.
  • Present clear expectations of the investigation process, as well as potential disciplinary actions.
  • Include a right to appeal the District’s final decision after the investigation.

Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for ACLU of Pennsylvania, said PSU’s demands are reasonable. He said that he’d like to see it expanded to include complaints against school security and that a policy prohibiting retaliation should be written into the code of conduct.

“If they are serious about implementing it, it has to go a lot further and be a little bit deeper,” he said. “Not just, ‘People complained, we handled it. We checked this off the list.’”

At a meeting held June 6, PSU presented a version of their complaint system to members of the School Police Officer task forces and District administrators. Despite some pushback over publicizing the names of officers, Terrell said, attendees were receptive to their version and another meeting is planned for July to iron out the language of the final complaint system.

Also on PSU’s schedule is a meeting with Hite and SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson to discuss making the complaint system a policy, adding it to the District’s professional development training, and making officer penalties public.

Terrell said he is happy with the progress of the students and partners such as ELC that have helped along the way.

“We’re excited about that. We feel that we are getting closer to a [system] that is actually strong,” he said.