How a Philly cop broke the school-to-prison pipeline

Jovon Scere (left) and her daughter Jahnira Jones say they have benefited from the diversion program.

One morning in September 2014, when Jahnira Jones had just started seventh grade at Richard Allen Prep Charter School, her after-school plans weighed on her mind. She was supposed to take SEPTA to meet her mother near City Hall. "I was scared to go downtown," said Jahnira, now 15. It would be her first time taking public transit alone.

So she brought a Taser she'd found in her mother's room. But, on the school bus that morning, other kids wanted to see it. They passed it around. It was discharged, and a child was shocked.

If it had happened a year earlier, Jones would likely have been arrested: Bringing a weapon onto school property is a crime, and state law requires schools to call police. She would have been taken in handcuffs to a precinct, fingerprinted, photographed, and held in a cell for up to six hours. She would, for the first time in her life, be caught up in the juvenile justice system.

Instead, she got a second chance.

She benefited from the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program, an initiative that has, on a shoestring using services the city already had in place, more or less shut down the school-to-prison pipeline in Philadelphia - and created a model for how to do so nationwide.

In the 2014-15 school year, its first full year, the program cut arrests by 54 percent from a year earlier. By the next year, arrests were down 64 percent. More than 1,000 arrests have been averted, yet schools have not become more dangerous. In fact, the number of serious behavioral incidents declined; there were about 1,000 fewer incidents each year than in the year before the program began.

The concept is simple: Give first-time, low-level offenders a one-time break - and, instead of criminalizing the behavior, address its root causes.

But it required a new way of thinking for Philadelphia police.

Kevin Bethel, 53, was a deputy commissioner when he conceived the idea in early 2014 after he began learning about current movements in juvenile justice, and the collateral consequences of arrests. After 29 years on the police force, he began to view juvenile arrests as a public-health problem.

He had been put in charge of school police in 2013, and started digging into the data. "I was shocked to see we were locking up 1,600 kids a year. And I was shocked to see the offenses kids were being locked up for."

Kids as young as 10 were being arrested for bringing scissors to school, or for pushing in the hallways.

He found that 85 percent of the kids who were arrested ended up in a diversion program through the District Attorney's Office. But he worried by then some damage had already been done.

So, Bethel said, "I came to the place of, not only 'What is the effect of the arrest?' but also, 'What is the trauma when I take a 10-year-old child who potentially is being abused at home, sexually or physically, a child who's maybe not been eating, and I arrest them without ever asking what's going on in their lives?' "

The consequences of a juvenile arrest are significant, said Naomi Goldstein, a psychologist who runs the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab at Drexel University.

"Once you have contact with the juvenile justice system, there are all sorts of potential collateral consequences. There are court costs that can be very difficult for these families," she said. "It can lead to expulsion and disciplinary transfer to alternative schools. And, we know, once kids leave their home school, their chances of completing school drop tremendously."

The diversion process, a collaboration between police, the city Department of Human Services, and the School District, starts when a school police officer is called in. The officer, instead of arresting the student, calls the diversion intake center.

The center is a quiet office in the Juvenile Justice Services Center, the city's pretrial detention center for kids, where two police officers are embedded among the probation officers and case workers.

By Sept. 9, three days into the school year, four cases had been called in, all marijuana possession. Officers Vicente Ramirez and La'Tonya Bey-Gore check that the crime qualifies: The list includes possession of marijuana or a weapon other than a gun, fights in which no one's injured, and disorderly conduct. They also confirm the teen has no record and hasn't been diverted before.

If a student is accepted, he or she receives a notice that a DHS worker will visit his or her home within 72 hours. DHS assesses the family's needs and, often, recommends Intensive Prevention Services, a 90-day after-school program.

Goldstein said as many as 90 percent of families accept services.

But: "There's nothing hanging over their head. They can accept the services, or they cannot accept the services. But the decision is, once they've been diverted, you don't go back and arrest them."

Ramirez said, on home visits, case workers sometimes discover the family has other needs, like help with utilities or housing.

"There were homes with lots of kids, and the house was a mess. Some homes were beautiful, clean," he said. "One that didn't have any heat really stuck with me. All the kids had extra layers of clothes on. The mom kept apologizing for the condition of the home and said she needed help. It was heartbreaking."

Bey-Gore said she can now take the time to understand why a kid may be using marijuana to cope, or to confirm that a kid had a box cutter because he'd been using it at an after-school job. A former school police officer, she said that those kids would have been arrested in the days of zero tolerance.

Bethel left the police force last fall after receiving a Stoneleigh Foundation justice fellowship, to work at Drexel with Goldstein, who's analyzing the impact of the project with an eye to creating a template that can be used anywhere in the country.

As of this August, Goldstein said, the recidivism rate among participants was 13.2 percent. By comparison, she said that, nationally, the average recidivism rate for kids who are arrested and spend any time in custody is estimated to be between 30 percent and 65 percent.

She found something else in the data: Two-thirds of diverted kids had no history of suspension. Most were passing their classes. Before, she said, "We were arresting kids who are actually showing up, and who are actually doing well in school."

Wednesday afternoon, teens began filtering in, past stacks of brochures about the ills of gangs and drugs, to a lounge at the Bridge, in Mantua, one of six Intensive Prevention Services programs serving at-risk kids, including those in police diversion. On Monday, they'd visited the studio of artist James Dupree. Today, they'd make an art project of their own.

Other days, there are group sessions in social and emotional competency, drug and alcohol education, anger management, and healthy attachments. Each teen has a case manager and counselor who conduct home and school visits. Each must write a series of essays and fulfill a community service requirement.

There's also a monthly parents' night, though attendance for that is spotty.

Many kids feel a sense of abandonment, said program director Chris Kanyugi. "A lot of those kids are looking for affirmation and acceptance, and those are the kids who end up being followers and doing something stupid."

Often, Kanyugi said, kids ask to stay after the program ends. But since diversions began, they're often running at capacity.

Timene Farlow, deputy commissioner for juvenile justice at DHS, noted the programs aren't new.

"But there was considerable underutilization," she said. "The public's perception has been that DHS is child snatchers, and people don't want to have a formal relationship with the DHS system."

Jovon Scere, Jahnira's mother, was wary for that very reason.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, DHS is not a good thing to be involved in,' " she said, in the living room of her tidy rowhouse in a North Philadelphia public-housing project. "But actually, it helped. I believe my daughter is more open now with me."

This mild-mannered approach represents an antidote to zero tolerance, a disciplinary mantra that swept into schools across the country in the 1990s.

The Philadelphia School District instituted zero tolerance in 2002.

"Removing kids from school was viewed as a method of keeping schools safe," Goldstein said. "But research shows that can actually make schools less safe."

In 2011, nearly a decade into Philadelphia's zero-tolerance experiment, the Inquirer's Pulitzer Prize-winning series "Assault on Learning" chronicled a climate of violence in the schools, from kindergartners assaulting teachers to a high school student beaten by a mob while she was trying to take a test.

The next year, the schools instituted a new code of conduct that focused on prevention rather than out-of-school punishments. It gave principals more discretion over disciplinary decisions.

But, Goldstein said, "As cities start to get rid of zero-tolerance policies from their books, they're finding the practices still continue. So it's not just a question of getting rid of the policy, but what do you put in its place?"

Rachel Holzman, deputy chief of Student Rights and Responsibilities at the School District, said there have been a slew of reforms at the district, and the district has hired climate managers and trained schools in restorative practices.

Holzman is evaluating how diversion is impacting principals' decisions about discipline.

"We're seeing some promising results. Last school year, as high as 70 percent of children who were diverted were not sent down for a disciplinary hearing [to consider expulsion or transfer]," Holzman said. "All data points to fears being allayed that things would get worse somehow if we didn't arrest children."

Now, Bethel hopes the program can be expanded beyond the schools. Farlow mentioned retail theft as a possible target, and said about 300 first-time teenage offenders could be diverted from arrest each year.

And at a time when tensions between police and young people are high, Bethel thinks this work can help police understand teens, and vice versa.

"It's an opportunity for children and families to see policing in a different way, to see the Department of Human Services in a different way, to see the whole process in a different way."

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed