Inside Philadelphia's Fight for Police Free Schools
By Riley Keenan
The Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) wants to reimagine what school safety looks like. For more than a decade, they’ve been fighting for police free schools. With the current momentum around the country and in the city, they believe now is the time to pressure the District to remove police officers from the halls, and instead provide students with mental health support and school nurses.
Zion Brooks (@zion1.b)
According to Saudia Durrant, an organizer for PSU at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber and Paul Robeson High School, the fight for police free schools started when students in a PSU chapter at Sayre High School were assaulted and attacked by city police officers in 2008. The police claimed the assault was because they were late to school and out of uniform. Saudia continues that after this there were at least twelve students that were suspended or given disciplinary transfers. Students in the school then implemented a program to train police officers.
PSU’s most recent effort for police free schools was started in early June. PSU created a petition to Philadelphia’s Board of Education and Superintendent, Dr. William Hite, demanding the District:
“1. Remove all police and school resource officers from schools.
2. Have the Office of School Safety replace school police with community members trained in de-escalation, restorative justice, and other skills that support healthy schools and communities.
3. End its memorandum of understanding with the Philadelphia Police Department.”
The petition has since received almost 16,000 signatures. Presumably as a result of the large attention the petition has received, The District’s school police chief, Kevin Bethel, Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Hite, and some members from the Board of Education have agreed to meet with student leaders and community organizers from PSU.
However, students don’t feel like they’re being heard. They feel as though the district is not taking their views into consideration and is only meeting with them for show, with very little willingness to budge. After a recent meeting with Mr. Bethel, Alison Fortenberry, a PSU member from Masterman High School, stated that “[Mr. Bethel] seemed really insistent on protecting the jobs of police more than he cared about school safety.” Following the most recent meeting with the District on June 30th, Fortenberry says: “We’ve told them over and over again what the problem is and they understand it but they just don’t want to take action.”
Zion Brooks, rising junior at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber says: “The bulk of both the meetings were to just say they did meet with the students and got our take on it; so they can say ‘Okay, I hear you, I’m listening but I’m going to do what I [the District] want anyway.’”
Yanhee Acklin, a PSU member from the Philadelphia High School for Girls says “the District is very stuck in their ways when it comes to policing in schools. We get a lot of pushback from them. I don't really understand why; there're many incidents on record that we have with the SRO [School Resource Officer] program.” However, the school district seems as though they are completely disregarding the many incidents that have occurred. Yahnee continues: “One of our former members was assaulted by an SRO because he was trying to go through the back. You hear incidents like this all the time, it’s not uncommon at all.”
The District announced during a recent Action Meeting that they have plans to rename all SROs and provide them with “softer” uniforms, so as not to intimidate students. PSU members feel this isn’t enough, and are to continue demanding the District remove all police. They feel an increasing number of School Board Members are supporting them, and are hopeful that a change will come soon.