Kevin Bethel was in charge of school police in Philadelphia when he started researching juvenile crime.
“I was shocked to see we were locking up 1,600 kids a year,” Bethel tells Philly.com. “And I was shocked to see the offenses kids were being locked up for.”
The Philadelphia School District established a zero-tolerance policy in 2002. Pushing in the hallways, bringing scissors to school—all sorts of offenses supposedly warranted even a 10-year-old’s arrest.
It’s the age-old mantra: tough disciplinary measures will curb misbehavior and keep schools safer. At least, many would like to think so.
“But research shows that it can actually make schools less safe,” Drexel University psychologist Naomi Goldstein tells Philly.com.
Goldstein notes the potential severity of collateral consequences, lamenting the added stress students and their families may experience. Often, students are much less likely to graduate after they’ve been forced to transfer schools.
Now, Philadelphia schools are focusing on preventative measures rather than harsh punishments outside the classroom.
Calling on services already offered in the city, Bethel helped initiate the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program “on a shoestring.” Rather than criminalizing minute offenses, the program would offer students a one-time break for “low-level” misbehavior—not merely letting it slide, but taking time to address the root causes and point students toward real help.
Bethel explains, “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?”
So they started asking. Through the diversion program, which launched in 2014, police work with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and the school district. After an incident, there is no immediate arrest. Instead, the officer calls the diversion intake center—a pretrial detention center for youth—to confirm that it is, in fact, a student’s first offense.
If it is, he or she is accepted to enter a diversion process. A DHS worker visits the student’s home, assesses the family’s needs, and recommends next steps—like this 90-day after-school program.
“We’re seeing some promising results,” says Rachel Holzman, deputy chief of Student Rights and Responsibilities at the school district. Since the program began:
- Arrests have dropped 64 percent.
- About 1,000 fewer incidents have been reported each year.
Kevin Bethel hopes that, over time, police and teens may start understanding each other more. Reforms like this could change the climate not only in the schools, but throughout the city, as Philadelphians begin to see the rewards of restorative practices.
A fair and effective juvenile justice system should foster meaningful change in the lives of youth and their families—both holding people accountable for their actions and addressing the history and habits that led to those choices. Prison Fellowship is working to enact policies that support appropriate consequences and offer troubled youth the help they really need.
Prison Fellowship is also making waves for juvenile justice in states like Virginia, which ranked as number one in the nation for the number of referrals from schools to law enforcement. Check out our Virginia white paper, which includes a full section on school discipline and encourages community, faith-based, and family centered options instead of incarceration.
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