Amid the national debate over race and policing sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Philadelphia students and advocates pressed the school board on Thursday to remove police from district schools.
“They don’t look at us like students, they look at us like criminals,” Alison Fortenberry said during a virtual board hearing. Fortenberry, who said she was one of the few black seniors at Masterman, one of the city’s top magnet schools, said she had been humiliated and “criminalized in front of my peers” when an officer searched her backpack without explanation in the security line last year.
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She was one of several students who were joined by advocates, district staff, and parents in telling the board it was time to pull police from schools, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that has spurred calls for defunding police and greater investment in black communities.
“We can’t chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ ... and not ensure that black schools matter,” said Tamir Harper, a 2018 graduate of Science Leadership Academy who leads a nonprofit called UrbEd. He urged the board to reallocate funding from school police “to neighborhood schools and support systems.” The district plans to spend $28.8 million next year on school police, out of a $3.5 billion budget.
During a news briefing earlier Thursday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district had already been focused on shifting the role of police in schools. Kevin Bethel, who was appointed last year as the head of the district’s school police force, has pledged to focus on trauma and deescalation and creating a welcoming environment for students. The district’s police officers do not carry guns and do not have arrest powers.
Hite said the district had “drastically reduced” the presence of officers from the Police Department. Those officers are not assigned to schools, he said, but “rotate in and out.”
“To a large degree, I agree with the young people. They want to see more adults in schools that are helping them” as opposed to policing them, Hite said. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to move toward.”
Yet advocates who spoke Thursday — including with the Philadelphia Student Union, which has pushed the district to phase out police — said the district’s force should be removed entirely, calling for money spent on police to instead fund counselors and social workers. They said police did not make schools safer and noted incidents involving school police — including an alleged assault of an 8-year-old by an officer in his elementary school.
The mere presence of police in schools can create stress for some students and impact brain function, said Annike Sprow, who said she had worked in Philadelphia schools and helped train teachers on dealing with trauma.
“It’s impossible to become a truly trauma-informed district without the removal of school police,” Sprow told the board.
The board took no action during Thursday’s hearing, which was held for the public to voice opinions on the year ahead. Other topics included the toll of the coronavirus outbreak and the district’s plans for reopening schools, and calls from students to invest in schools despite the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.
It wasn’t the first time the board has heard from opponents of school police. Last March, it voted to mandate metal detectors in high schools, prompting activists to shut down a board meeting.
Two board members who spoke Thursday said they were taking the concerns seriously.