by The Philadelphia Student Union May 11, 2017
Students Demand Real Accountability And An End To School Police Violence
Police brutality is an epidemic that has existed since the Reconstruction Era in the U.S. For decades, the over criminalization of people of color and police violence in our communities has been disregarded by those with the privilege of ignoring it.
In Philadelphia’s Public Schools there are is an abundance of School Police, creating an atmosphere of captivity instead of one of learning. Police, by any logical stretch of the mind, do not belong in schools, yet here they are. There have been many incidents in which a student is harassed physically and/or verbally by school police (this police presence is not only a problem in and of itself, but also feeds directly into the school-to-prison pipeline). However, the striking majority of these incidents, in which black and brown students are disproportionately the victims, go unreported and unnoticed.
In 2017, our immediate access to technology allows us to record and publicize the violent, unlawful and racists actions of police officers in the U.S. An increase in the use of social media platforms to expose these incidents, has forced the discussion and acknowledgement of the issues facing Black and Latinx communities in the U.S. With the media’s increased attention to police violence, the repeated narrative that we have witnessed on a national scale is also prevalent in Philadelphia public schools where, in-school police violence disproportionately affects students of color, in neighborhood schools.
Last year, on May 5th, Ben Franklin student and Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) member Brian Burney was assaulted by a school police officer for attempting to go to the bathroom without a pass (at Ben Franklin, the bathrooms are locked and students must search the halls for a cop that has the keys to the bathroom, and then ask the cop to unlock the bathroom for them). Non-police roles like this have been taken on by police because budget cuts have resulted in the loss of noon-time aides and other school faculty. For a Philadelphia high school student, any simple action such as going to the bathroom can become a police encounter. Brian was violently attacked by the cop, who punched him and held him in a headlock. The incident was filmed by a student as well as school cameras, however most of the video footage from the student’s cell phone was erased when school faculty took the phone from the student. In the School District of Philadelphia, students are held accountable for their actions very harshly. Students can be suspended or expelled for code of conduct violations as small as having their phones out.
PSU backed Brian and the student who filmed the attack throughout the following ordeal, and focused our campaigning towards the issue of cops in schools. We sent a letter to Dr. Hite, Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) demanding several things, two of which were that the cop be fired and for the SDP to create a School Police complaint system. Our specific demands regarding the complaint system policy were that there be: independent oversight of the system, summary reports of data released by the school district quarterly and publicly, policy that specifies disciplinary action against officers, potential penalties, and prevents retaliation against the person submitting the complaint, an option for anonymity, different ways to submit the complaint that make it accessible to all students and parents. Additionally we demanded: that any change being made to the policy needs to be publicly announced and approved by the SRC with a period for public comment, an increase in the number of guidance counselors and a decrease in the number of school police officers, an end to be put to policy that can lead to expulsion of students that use their phones to record incidents, and the closure of Woodworth school. The SDP failed to meet the majority of our demands, and did not fire the cop, they only reassigned him. When Dr. Hite responded to our letter he agreed in writing to collaborate with PSU to create a complaint system.
Ideally, a complaint system would allow students to report any harassment or code-of-conduct breaking behavior of the School Police. The system would be accessible to all students, and an investigation of the complaint would be carried out. The investigation team would have a predetermined amount of time to provide an official written decision regarding the incident and the officer(s) involved. All police officers found guilty of harassing a student will be held accountable for their actions. Having a way to hold school police accountable is a first step towards creating a safer environment in schools; a safer environment where students can feel as though their voices will be listened to and taken seriously if they decide to report a problem. Another step is the divestment of funding for school police officers and the investment in school counselors. There are currently 433 school police officers and 200 counselors in the Philadelphia school district. The excessive amount of officers in schools demonstrates the lack of trust the school district has for its students. We are rallying today because the district has failed to support its students again, we demand that the district prioritize increasing the presence of school counselors and decrease the amount of school police officers. We also ask that the district end the policy that allows students to be expelled for the “inappropriate use of cell phones.”
Today, more than 50 years later after the creation of the Black Panther Party, we recognize that cop watching tactics are still necessary. Arbitrary rules about appropriate cell phone use prevent students from being able to expose the injustices that happen within their schools. That is why we are announcing that if the district continues to ignore the voices of its students and disregard the need for an effective complaint system, the Philadelphia Student Union is prepared to train students across the city in cop watching strategies to reveal the problems within our schools.
Effective change cannot happen without the voice of the youth and those directly experiencing injustices. The district needs to hear its students, teachers and the local community and address the problem of police violence in schools.
Enough Is Enough!
* Blog post written by PSU members Michael Papadopoulos & Kaila Caffey