Everyone agreed it was going to be an unpredictable year.
Most Philadelphia School District students hadn’t been in a structured environment for 18 months, and staff braced for behavioral challenges.
At the same time, the district would have fewer school security personnel, as a plan to deemphasize traditional law-and-order practices continued to unfold under a security chief hired two years ago.
Pair those situations with a city gun violence crisis making its way to the doorsteps of Philly’s schools, and several district safety officers — formerly known as school police officers — are saying they don’t have the resources to protect the students and themselves.
“We’re here to make the school a safe environment so kids can learn,” said Royce Merriweather, president of the union that represents school security officers. “But we’re understaffed.”
Amid the ongoing gun violence crisis, Philadelphia police have stepped up patrols in 25 “safety zones” affecting 38 schools. And chief of school safety Kevin Bethel recently secured funding to begin a “Safe Path” program by the end of the school year, stationing paid community members outside four key schools at arrival and dismissal.
But several school safety officers, who asked that their names be withheld for fear of reprisal, say they need more resources inside buildings, too. They say they are now stretched too thin, lacking adequate resources in volatile situations. And although patrol officers have bulletproof vests, school-based officers do not. Worker shortages across the school system mean officers sometimes pick up jobs that used to be handled by other support staff, such as signing in guests at schools’ front desks, one officer said.
“I can’t respond to situations inside the building — I’m the only one at the front,” said one veteran officer, who has worked at Philadelphia schools of various types and sizes for more than a decade.
Besides supervising students’ scan through metal detectors and breaking up fights and other disturbances, officers are increasingly handling parents and other family members who bring disputes to school buildings and threaten staff members.
“There’s a lot of gun situations, people coming up to the school,” the veteran officer said. “We’ve got parents who are jumping out of cars and acting the fool, and we can’t protect ourselves.”
The school safety officers said city police shortages exacerbate their problems.
The veteran officer said he waits hours for police to help; last week, he called police to help with a serious student fight outside school at dismissal. No one ever came.
Another longtime officer, who works patrolling the city, providing backup to safety officers, said things have “never been this bad.”
“You call for backup and no one’s available,” said the patrol officer. “You only have one or two officers on patrol, and they have four or five incidents to handle. We have officers who can’t get backup, and you don’t know what people are carrying in the neighborhoods. We’ve had so many incidents where you don’t have response or backup.”
Under Bethel, the school safety force has changed dramatically.
Bethel, a former Philadelphia police deputy commissioner, brought to the district in December 2019 a pre-arrest diversion program that sends first-time offenders of low-level incidents on a social services path rather than locking them up. About 1,600 district students were arrested in 2013-14; those numbers have dropped to about 250 a year.
Bethel has ordered safety officers’ priorities shifted away from a policing focus to a more supportive role, with an emphasis on mentorship and trauma-informed practices. And in addition to dropping the “police” name, Philadelphia’s security officers have different uniforms — polo shirts and khakis instead of police blues.
The changes come as some big cities, including Minneapolis, Denver, and Oakland, have removed police from schools entirely.
But when public conversations turn to defunding police, “part of what people need to recognize is the downstream impacts of all that,” Bethel said.
Philadelphia has shrunk both its school safety budget and the number of officers who patrol the city’s 200-plus schools in the last year. In 2013-14, there were 400 officers; now, there are 272. The office’s budget has shrunk, too, to $26.3 million in 2021-22 from $29 million the prior school year.
Bethel noted the drop in the safety office’s budget and said it is staffing schools through a data-driven process and adjusting deployment as needed.
“We’re working with a few less, but we’re being able to manage,” said Bethel, adding that high rates of school safety officer absence further complicate the staffing picture.
“When you have a workforce that takes off ... it makes it a challenge to back them,” he said.
The officers said the uniform changes have led to less respect from students, a position shared by Merriweather, the union president.
“When things go awry at some of the schools, it’s hard for them to tell who’s who and what’s what,” Merriweather said.
The district under Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has publicly emphasized restorative justice and other positive behavior supports designed to deter disruptive behavior before it escalates. But officers say those programs have been implemented unevenly in many schools, and student behavior is worse after more than a year out of school and against the backdrop of a pandemic, gun violence, and other trauma, with little recourse.
“The kids know there are no consequences, they’re getting away with a lot of what they shouldn’t get away with,” said one veteran officer, who noted students have not been penalized for such things as setting fires and assaulting classmates. “I’m for giving people second chances, but at some point, they need to understand they can’t do this in real life.”
Several school administrators agreed and said there has not been enough training or support for such programs as restorative justice.
“The behaviors are so much worse with the same old policies and procedures in place,” said one principal, who also declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. “Students behave with impunity.”
Bethel said he understands some officers worry about their own safety and he is “open to discuss with my team those additional things they need,” but “we have not seen at this point the need to arm them with mace and those types of things.” (The school safety union is currently in contract talks with the district.)
Equipping school-based officers with vests would be a tough sell, said Bethel, adding that he won’t “have fear solely drive our decisions.”
“Once we go into that posture, it gives a different presentation of who we are as an organization,” he said. “Are we going to put a vest on the climate managers and the principal who might be on the front step with me?”
His is a security force, meant to handle lower-level incidents, to support building administrators and students. Bethel said more serious incidents must be handled by city police.
As for student behavior, Bethel said schools braced for it, and officers must realize what children are dealing with.
“We have to push ourselves to be a little more patient than we have in the past in dealing with our young people,” Bethel said. “Everybody’s settling in, everybody’s trying to figure out what their space is and who’s in charge.”