No question, Philadelphia School District officials say: A school police officer should never have removed an 8-year-old from class and allegedly assaulted and berated the boy over a routine classroom issue.
But the third grader’s parents and other education activists are raising a larger point, questioning the presence of police in Philadelphia schools, especially elementary schools.
“Why are these people in our schools in the first place?” asked Julien Terrell, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth organizing group. “We want a long-term commitment to phasing school police out.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. would not go that far, but he said he thought the district’s definition of what a school police officer’s job is should be “continually evolving.”
Across the U.S., the number of school police has risen since 1999, when the Columbine school shootings occurred. At first, that growth was primarily centered in middle and high schools, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. After 2012 and the Sandy Hook massacre, more elementary schools began adding police, Canady said.
(Philadelphia’s school police operate independently of the Philadelphia Police Department. They do not carry weapons or have arrest powers.)
School police, in the ideal scenario, “bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth,” said Canady. “Officers who are working under the right foundation, proper selection and training, make a very positive impact. If done the right way, we believe that the officer-student relationship can lead to change for the next generation in terms of how communities and law enforcement relate to each other.”
Hite said that squares with his personal belief – officers should be “supporting, educating, problem-solving.”
And while the superintendent still stands by a recent promise he made to the Philadelphia Student Union to not have more school police than counselors in any school, “I don’t ever see us taking all police out of schools,” he said. “I still have to guarantee to all families and children that we’re going to have safe environments. In some of our communities, I have people calling for a larger police presence.”
In a perfect world, schools wouldn’t need officers, said Royce Merriweather, president of the district’s school police union. In this one, they do.
“Some of the things that you see out here in society, we see inside the schools,” Merriweather said. “Our guys constantly put themselves in harm’s way to keep kids and staff safe.”
The larger conversation has been sparked by an incident involving Isaac Gardner Jr. at Solis-Cohen Elementary. On Oct. 20, an officer forcibly removed the boy from his classroom, took him into a nearby faculty bathroom and shut the door, his parents say. The officer threw the child to the ground, cursing at him and calling him names, they say – all for refusing to leave his art class after he had words with some classmates.
Although school officials did not notify his parents, Isaac Sr. and Lauren Gardner, about the incident, the family eventually filed a police report and, after consulting with a local education advocacy group, a School District complaint. Isaac Gardner Sr. said he got no answers until he held a news conference at School District headquarters and testified at a School Reform Commission meeting.
District officials now say that they dropped the ball by not following up on the police complaint in a timely manner and not communicating policies to employees effectively. “We made a bad situation worse,” district spokesman Lee Whack said in a statement.
“Officers are not to be utilized for classroom management purposes under any circumstances, and individuals at the school did not meet the district’s expectations on Oct. 20,” Whack’s statement said. The officer in question was removed from Solis-Cohen and the incident investigated; citing the personnel matter, Whack would not specify the outcome of the investigation.
Merriweather, who initially said that the officer had been cleared by the Department of Human Services and district, said he could not comment on the state of the investigation.
Since he went public with the incident, Gardner, an activist who has been a vocal critic of city police, particularly around the death of David Jones, said a number of parents have reached out to him to say their children have also been victims of rough treatment by school police officers, but they weren’t aware there was any recourse.
“This is not just about my child,” said Gardner. “So many parents are frustrated. They need to know their rights, and that their children will be safe.”
Gardner says that while he is glad the district acknowledged its employees acted improperly, its mea culpa did not go far enough. He has, however, agreed to work with school system officials to review the role of school police in Philadelphia.
Terrell and the Philadelphia Student Union have worked closely with the Gardners on the school policing issue. PSU has pushed the district on school policing, particularly since a 2016 incident when a student at Benjamin Franklin High was allegedly assaulted by a school police officer there after the young man attempted to use the bathroom, Terrell said. Video of the incident shows a student in a chokehold by a school police officer. A witness shouted, “He’s not even resisting!”
After the Ben Franklin assault, PSU worked with the district to develop the formal school police complaint process. PSU modeled its work on Oakland’s. The organization also asked Hite to agree to certain points – including that schools should not have more police officers than guidance counselors, which is the case in some buildings. The superintendent made that commitment.
No doubt – there are safety issues in many schools, Terrell said.
“But there should be an investment in developing alternatives to dealing with safety,” Terrell said. “Are you looking at de-escalation? Are you investing in staff?”