School police will no longer patrol city public school halls come September. Instead, “school safety officers” in less severe uniforms and with different job descriptions will be stationed throughout the Philadelphia School District.
The move comes amid local and national pushes to remove police from schools. A handful of big-city districts, including those in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, and Oakland, have severed or backed away from relationships with police departments in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of police.
The shift, which will not mean the replacement of the 300-plus men and women who have worked as school police, is not expressly linked to Floyd’s death and the resulting national activism. A change in the Pennsylvania state code stipulates that only sworn officers can be called “school police.” Philadelphia school security personnel, who do not carry guns, do not fit that description.
But school safety chief Kevin Bethel said the name change is well timed.
Bethel, appointed in November after a long career in the Police Department, has made plain his and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.‘s aim to transform the force — moving away from arresting and toward mentoring and providing social services supports. It’s work that Bethel moved toward at the end of his police career, gaining national acclaim for implementing a youth arrest-diversion program that has slashed student arrests by 84% since 2013.
Officers have been trained in trauma-informed practices, and will receive more education on things like implicit bias.
”We are a different organization,” Bethel told the Philadelphia school board at its Thursday night meeting. “We will be a different organization.”
Board member Lee Huang said he believes changes need to be made to school security. But as the father of three children in district schools, he said, he does not take for granted the need for personnel to ensure school safety.
“We are laying the groundwork for an approach that is more about caring for our students than surveilling them,” Huang said.
At H.A. Brown Elementary in Kensington, principal Connie Carnivale said her school security officer’s work is crucial. The officer begins the day working with Carnivale to notify prostitutes and drug users that children are about to report to school. She builds relationships with students, calms down agitated students, and makes sure the chaos of the surrounding neighborhood does not seep into the school hallways.
“Our partnership allows me to be a focused instructional leader when she is present,” Carnivale said of Brown’s school police officer.
Board President Joyce Wilkerson praised Hite’s and Bethel’s work to change the direction of school safety, but the rebranding was met with skepticism from other quarters. Students said that they feel criminalized by school security officers, and that Black young people in particular are traumatized by officers’ presence in schools. And board member Mallory Fix Lopez said the term officer in and of itself is problematic.
“I see pretty much the same thing, just repackaged,” Fix Lopez said. “It doesn’t have this overall climate and culture shift.”
Over 13,000 community members have signed a Change.org petition calling for police-free schools in Philadelphia.
Aden Gonzales, a student at Masterman and member of the Philadelphia Student Union, asked the board to reallocate the $30 million now spent on school safety to student support services.
“Police, no matter what name we give them or what uniform they wear, do not make our schools safe,” Gonzales said. “Guidance counselors do.”
Noting that she has never had a school with adequate soap and paper towels, Zion Brooks, a student at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, also said the school-police money would be better spent elsewhere.
“I mean, abolish them completely — not change a name,” said Brooks.
Brooks’ mother, City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, joined her daughter’s call.
“Police do not make schools feel safer,” she said. “They increase the likelihood that young people of color will be criminalized.”
In a 5-3 vote, the board also passed revisions to the policy guiding the use of metal detectors in schools. The intent is to standardize the controversial policy, which requires the use of weapons-detection equipment in secondary schools.