As the SEPTA train hurtles southward along the Broad Street Line, a video camera records a teen acting the way teens sometimes do — which is to say, stupidly — rapping "F— the police," right in front of an officer and making a hand gesture that the officer believed to represent a gun.

In the video, the officer's face wrinkles in annoyance. He speaks up, accusing the kid and his friends of having been in a fight at a different train station the previous week.

Just then, another kid stands up from his seat and turns toward the cop. According to the officer's report, the kid shouts, "What you talking 'bout?"

That's when the officer gives him a hard shove, knocking him backward, then grabs him by the collar and pushes him around the subway car. In a video of the March 27 incident, the officer can be seen holding the kid by the neck for several tense minutes, before finally hauling him off the train while the boy resists.

The kid, a 17-year-old from North Philadelphia who goes by Yaz, described a frightening moment: "He was choking me." But it was Yaz who was charged and found guilty, of harassment and disorderly conduct, in Philadelphia Family Court.

As for the officer? SEPTA says he did an admirable job managing a tough situation.

Yaz is now locked up in an institutional placement. Advocates call such settings dangerous and detrimental to kids' education, and city leaders acknowledge they're problematic.

Despite the safety concerns, Yaz's mother, Faith Phillips, supported the placement. In fact, because Yaz had been truant last year, she'd already petitioned Family Court to intervene.

"I feel like it's safer for him there than in the city being a teenage boy," she said. "I don't want him to get murdered on the streets of Philadelphia by a cop or someone else." Yaz is a big kid — close to 6 feet tall, and sturdy. In his neighborhood, he'd get stopped, questioned, and searched by police so often that by the time he was 16, she made sure he had a state ID, "so he could show he's a child."

It's a well-worn path for struggling Philly kids who find themselves at the intersection of the education, child-welfare, and criminal justice systems. It can begin, as in Yaz's case, with unresolved school issues that escalate to truancy, which, in turn, can land kids in the child-welfare, or "dependency," system. Then, if a truant kid incurs any sort of juvenile charge — even a minor one, even one where the evidence is unclear — that can lead into placement.

Yaz was represented by the Defender Association, which made him available for an interview on the condition his full name not be used.

Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia
.( ED HILLE / File Photograph
Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia

When kids like Yaz have run-ins with law enforcement, the outcome is almost predetermined, said Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia's chief public defender, who recently made public a video of a young man who was charged with assaulting staff at a juvenile placement — until her office obtained footage showing it was actually the staffers who'd beaten him.

"Oftentimes, the only person that is looked at in terms of wrongdoing is … the kid," she said. "The full picture of how these things came about and the opportunities that adults had to de-escalate situations are not addressed."

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel said the force was justified in part because his officers who ride the trains each day recognize frequent troublemakers. "These are not good kids," he said.

He also noted that the officer, Kevin Hackett, could have used pepper spray or a baton; that he didn't was an indication of restraint.

And even though the video does not support it, he accepts Hackett's report that, when Yaz got up, his fists were clenched. (SEPTA would not make Hackett available to comment.)

"What should he have done — allow that person to get close enough to punch him?" he said.

SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel
CLEM MURRAY / File Photograph
SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel

‘We will make you go to school.’

By the time Yaz got to court, he said, it felt like a setup: "They were saying, 'Already planned for placement.' "

That's because, like many Philadelphia kids, his journey into placement began long before he was in juvenile court.

Last year, Yaz was a 10th-grade student at Strawberry Mansion High School. But he felt the school, which is on the brink of closure, didn't have much to offer — and, sometimes, it felt safer not to go. "Too many fights. I didn't like the school setting, and I didn't have options."

He was also suspended four or five times, he said, mostly related to allegations of fighting. Sometimes, he'd miss extra days because his mother was unable to get out of work to reinstate him.

"It's like, I already missed 10 days. Who cares if I miss 15?"

Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center (ELC), said the primary reasons she encounters for truancy are bullying and unmet special needs.

Last year, the nonprofit filed a civil rights complaint against the School District highlighting the particular risk to kids with disabilities, including a 9-year-old who started shaking and vomiting at the idea of returning to school. According to the complaint, the students were not given support or opportunities to transfer away from their bullies, but instead were referred to truancy court. A district spokesperson declined to comment but provided a statement outlining numerous anti-bullying efforts, including a hotline and training for staff.

"In addition to identifying individual reasons, we need to look at patterns," McInerney said. "If schools have high rates of truancy, there may be school environmental factors that contribute to that phenomenon. What is the school culture like? Is the school a safe environment? Is there sufficient staff? What is the condition of the facility?"

At Strawberry Mansion, just 74 percent of students show up on an average school day. Four out of five were "chronically absent" in the 2015-16 school year, meaning they missed 18 days or more. And the rate of out-of-school suspensions was the city's highest in the 2016-17 school year, the most recent published data: Nearly two out of three students at Mansion were suspended at least once, and one in four was suspended at least three times.

Under a 2016 state law meant to reduce truancy, schools must create attendance-improvement plans to support truant kids. The School District, which has long struggled with truancy rates of more than 30 percent, says the new law only codified long-standing supportive practices focused on eliminating barriers.

When those efforts fail, kids like Yaz are referred to Regional Truancy Court, a next-level intervention run collaboratively by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Family Court, and the School District.

In the 2016-17 school year, the district says, it referred about 6,000 students to Truancy Court. Last year, after the new law came into effect, that number dropped to 3,000.

Of those referred in 2016-17, more than a thousand were referred to Family Court — and some segment of those ended up in out-of-home placement. DHS does not track how many.

A 2017 evaluation of DHS's "Improving Outcomes for Children" initiative noted that Philadelphia removes children from their families at an unusually high rate — 2½ times the national average. Of particular note, 22 percent of removals were for reasons related to the child's own behavior, compared with 11 percent nationally.

"Although DHS does not currently have sufficient data … ," the authors noted, "evaluators were consistently told that truancy is also a frequent reason for removal of children from their families."

All told, 1,189 children from the city are in institutional placements or other types of shelters or group homes.

DHS has reduced its use of such placements by one-third in recent years. Heather Keafer, a DHS spokesperson, said the agency is reviewing its practices and now declines school referrals until the attendance-improvement process is exhausted.

"We don't want kids coming into placement for truancy alone," she said.

Most cases, like Yaz's, are far more complicated than that.

Because Yaz's mother had already petitioned DHS, he ended up in Crossover Court, a unit of Family Court that deals with kids who have both delinquency and dependency issues.

In delinquent cases, including Yaz's, perfect school attendance is almost always a condition of probation. Missing one day can be a violation and cause for placement.

Patrick, 18, of Northeast Philadelphia experienced that firsthand. He had been skipping school — he didn't want to deal with harassment by other students — when he was arrested for exploring an abandoned building. He was charged with not just trespassing, but breaking and entering.

At court, "the judge said, 'If you don't want to go to school, we will make you go to school.' "

The Glen Mills School.
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
The Glen Mills School.

‘They give up and drop out’

The school both Yaz and Patrick were initially sent to is called Glen Mills. It's currently under investigation after a staffer reportedly choked a student, one of a string of violent incidents described in state records.

Yaz is now at another placement, St. Gabriel's Hall in Norristown. His complaint is the classwork. "It's too easy," he said. "It's the stuff I learned last year." He said St. Gabriel's hasn't been able to obtain his school records, so it is not sure where to place him.

Advocates say that's a common concern in such schools, which in some cases lack certified teachers, rely heavily on worksheets, and supply curriculum well below grade level.

"Too often, youth returning from placement find themselves far behind their peers academically; they give up and drop out," McInerney said.

Even those who graduate while in placement can face a tough road. One advocate reported a student who received a diploma from a placement took a community college entrance exam, and was told he was reading at a third-grade level.

Since Yaz aspires to be an electrical engineer, working with airplanes and helicopters, he's hoping to get out of placement and into a vocational credit-recovery program.

His mother said she'd love to see him finish out his high school diploma at St. Gabriel's.

She said Yaz and his friends probably had a chance to de-escalate the situation on the train. On the other hand, she said, "he's a 17-year-old kid. I would have made better decisions, but the boy is 17 years old."