Board supports ‘re-imagining,’ but not disbanding, school police

The members also outlined their plan of "goals and guardrails" that they say will address racist practices in the school system.

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

This story has been updated.

This story has been corrected to note that it was Ameen Akbar, not Julia Danzy, who voted against the metal detector update policy.

Members of the Board of Education indicated support Thursday for “re-imagining” rather than disbanding its school police force, despite numerous and fervent pleas from students, parents and teachers that the very concept of uniformed security in school traumatizes and criminalizes Black and brown young people.

At the same time, several board members told retired Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who now oversees safety in the District, that they expect him to deliver on his promise to retrain his 350 officers to “create a culture where every person feels safe and respected” in school.

Bethel defended the need for school security and promised that it will look very different for students when they return to school in the fall.

“We have been focused on [reform] for quite some time,” Bethel said, not just in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the ensuing protest and heightened awareness of racial injustice. He and Superintendent William Hite, backed by Board President Joyce Wilkerson, have said they want to make Philadelphia’s school safety approach a national model.

“I’m in support of what you’re doing, but you haven’t had a chance to prove any of the measures you are putting in place will work,” said Board Vice President Leticia Egea-Hinton. She said she was willing to give him time, “but I don’t want students traumatized or criminalized in the process.”

Board member Mallory Fix-Lopez was more skeptical. “I see a repackaged system with minor changes, not an overall climate and culture shift,” she said.

Bethel made his case for reform as speakers, led by the Philadelphia Student Union, demanded that the board pass a resolution creating “police-free schools” and divert the $31 million spent on security to hiring more counselors, nurses, and social workers. A PSU petition, signed by more than 13,000 people, called for replacing the officers with specially trained community members.

“Policing cannot be repackaged. The presence of police is traumatic,” Megan Gildin, social-emotional health advocate, told the board. “The softer approach is still problematic policing.”

Among those calling for an end to school police was City Council member Kendra Brooks, who is also a trainer in restorative justice practices for schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“Police do not make schools feel safer,” she said. “They increase the likelihood that young people of color will be criminalized.”

Personnel will now be called “school safety officers,” not school police, and Bethel promised that they would not engage in the type of confrontational and demeaning behavior toward students that some speakers have described. He said their uniforms would change to have a “softer look,” although he said that not all officers would have the new uniforms at the beginning of the school year.

Philadelphia’s school police have never been armed, but they do carry handcuffs. City police do not patrol Philadelphia schools, which is the case in some other cities where the #policefreeschools movement has had success. A legal agreement required under state law details the conditions under which city police can be called to schools.

Bethel is nationally known for his work on transforming how police interact with young people. While he was on the city force, he created a diversion program for minor offenses, in partnership with the District Attorney’s office and the Department of Human Services, that has dramatically reduced the number of school-based arrests.

Bethel, whose title is special adviser on school safety, said that his personnel serve as valuable members of the school community and that it is impractical and unwise to ditch school security entirely. Many come from the neighborhood in which they work, many are Black, many are female, and only a few are retired city police officers, he said – a change from the past. Many transitioned to the job from other jobs in the District, including food service and positions dealing with climate and culture, he said.

Amid calls that the very presence of police in schools that serve mostly Black and brown children is an example of racism, the board announced that it was embarking on a “goals and guardrails” re-evaluation of its mission and purpose. One major guardrail is an effort is to “dismantle racist practices” in the District.

On the police issue, board members suggested that they wanted to see whether Bethel could really pull off his ambitious plans to transform school culture and the role of the school safety officers before looking at any substantial reallocation of resources.

“Clearly, meaningful change takes time,” said board member Julia Danzy. “I have seen some good school resource officers. I’ve also seen some bad ones. We need to be more assertive in getting those out. Mr. Bethel’s program carries for me the opportunity for change.” Danzy also said she would like to see a further name change that drops the word “officer.”

The board’s newest member, Ameen Akbar, said the District needs to “re-imagine discipline structures.” He works in youth development and has been a staff member at YouthBuild Charter, a second-chance program for students who have not succeeded in other schools. They spend a year learning construction skills and earning a diploma.

Many of the students who wound up there were the victims of a “zero-tolerance” discipline approach, Akbar said, which is no longer the District standard. He said he saw firsthand that the District’s discipline policies stifled student potential; some of his former students have gone on to work in the schools in jobs ranging from bus aide to teacher.

Akbar noted that truly building a “climate of school safety physically, emotionally, and culturally” is multi-faceted and “daunting” work.

While many speakers echoed the call for police-free schools, several spoke in support of keeping them.

“We don’t just respond to crimes and detain children,” said T.C. Caldwell, who said he had been a school police officer since 2000 and a sergeant since 2005. Before that, he spent a year as a volunteer assistant basketball coach. “We are mentors, coaches, nurturers, relatives of students and neighbors, and proud products of the Philadelphia school system.”

Catherine Blunt, a former principal in the District, said she has not seen “any evidence of Black children being afraid of school police officers,” calling school security “essential” in many neighborhoods in the city.

“They are not our enemies, they are friends of students, protectors, confidantes, and sometimes saviors,” she said. “They are part of school families.”

Connie Carnivale, principal of H.A. Brown Elementary in Kensington, described how her officer is instrumental in helping her deal with “homeless people and prostitutes” who she said might be at the school’s doorstep in the early morning and reminding them they have to leave before the children arrive.

The officers are “vital to providing a safe learning environment for all stakeholders,” she said.

The discussion of safety came up in the context of Board Policy 817, which governs the use of metal detectors, which are mandatory in all District high schools. After consulting with student advisory groups, Bethel recommended changes to the policy that include clear signs letting students know what they are permitted to bring into schools, training the officers to be pleasant and welcoming, and having an “amnesty bin” where students could leave a banned item. The definition of “weapon” is broad, and includes scissors and penknives that students might not know violate the policy.

The revision did not include making their use voluntary. The changes passed 5-3, with Fix-Lopez, Ameen Akbar, and Angela McIver voting no.

“I will never be in agreement. … I don’t think there is a place in high schools for metal detectors,” McIver said.

Last year, the board approved the policy that made the metal detectors mandatory in all high schools over the vociferous objections of PSU and other activists.

Bethel said he has met with PSU and other student leaders and takes their concerns to heart. He promises to continually survey them to ask “if our men and women are meeting the bar that we’ve raised.”

Focusing on inequity in the District

Speakers emboldened by the nation’s reckoning with its ugly legacy on race issued challenges to the board regarding practices that raise racial bias issues, including aspects of the curriculum and the admissions process for magnet schools that results in Black students being severely underrepresented in them.

Hite said that history curricula are being rewritten to emphasize “social justice and anti-racism components,” along with “colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy and people’s resistance movements.” All District employees will receive anti-racism training this summer, he said.

But several speakers pointed out that the District for the past three years has declined to endorse a Black Lives Matter week organized by various teacher groups that had long been working on anti-racist issues and the need for curricular revisions. And others said the District needed to re-evaluate its criteria for special admissions schools, pointing out that Black students – who make up just over half of the District’s enrollment – are vastly underrepresented at schools like Masterman and Central High Schools.

Speakers cited the #blackatmasterman and #blackatcentral Instagram hashtags in which students describe instances of discrimination and microaggressions at the hands of peers and teachers.

“I am demanding that you implement school-based equity boards,” said Keziah Ridgeway, a teacher at Northeast High School and a member of the Melanated Educators Collective. She called for “equitable access” for all students to “all institutions and [academic] tracks, and the opportunity for teachers of color to teach those students.”

Teacher Kristen Luebbert urged the board to “tear down structures of Masterman and other magnets in order to rebuild them in an anti-racist way.”

‘Goals and guardrails’ initiative

At this meeting, the board outlined a major initiative that members are calling “goals and guardrails” with a mission to improve education for all students and address inequities within the system that more recently have been drawing parents’ and activists’ attention.

Declaring that “education is the key to fostering equity in society” and that its mission is to make sure all students reach their fullest potential, the document says that the board’s agenda going forward “must drive systemic change and dismantle racist practices in a system that far too often has gone unfunded and unchanged.”

It set four guardrails:

  • Make every school safe, welcoming, healthy, and clean with “inclusive climates that provide … social, emotional, and mental health supports.”
  • Give every student a well-rounded education that includes arts and athletics.
  • Welcome every parent and guardian as a partner.
  • “Work to dismantle racist practices that hinder student achievement.”

The board is entering its second two-year term after nearly two decades of the District being under state control. Danzy described that period as “20 years of … system survival mode” without a focus for improvement. She noted that on key federal indicators, the District has consistently ranked among the lowest in achievement among the nation’s big cities.

“This is,” she said, “a stake in the ground.”

Also at the meeting:

The board renewed the charters of Community Academy Charter School, KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, and Global Leadership Academy. It delayed, without explanation, planned votes on renewing Lindley Academy Charter School at Birney and Tacony Academy.

It accepted a nearly $500,000 grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership to increase enrollment at Philadelphia High School for Girls and prepare students for academic rigor. The school has been losing enrollment over the last 10 years and is accepting students below its usual academic threshold of scoring in the 85th percentile or better on state standardized tests.