The student group Youth United for Change launched an initiative Wednesday aimed at making city schools safer.

The group's "Safe to Count on Me" campaign promotes preventive discipline programs over zero-tolerance policies in dealing with school violence.

At a rally in Norris Square Park, the group shouted chants expressing protest and urging budget reform. They called on City Council to support implementation of a method known as restorative practice, a program tried in other cities that works with students, teachers, and parents to basically get students to learn from their mistakes.

"Schools need to be a safer place or students cannot take their education seriously," YUC member Cynthia Crespo said from a makeshift stage on the basketball court before dozens of youths.

Zero-tolerance policies, Crespo said, "have created climates of fear toward youth, not climates of respect. We all think it's time for a change, time for something new."

In Philadelphia, the group says, 2,505 arrests were made in schools during the 2009-10 academic year, some for minor offenses. The School District also issued more than 46,000 out-of-school suspensions. Of those, about 415 were kindergarten students. And still, group members say, violence is up about 2 percent.

The group is also using social media, through Facebook, to raise awareness.

"How can we say we are the future," wondered Mastbaum High School senior Michael Foster, "when the current policies that are implemented treat me like a criminal?"

Other speakers included Mayor Nutter, City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, and State Rep. Tony Payton (D., Phila.).

"We need to make sure every young person is safe going to and from school," Nutter told the crowd. "More than that, that you're safe in the building you are in. ... Our kids deserve the best."

Contact Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kiagregory.