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Youth activists question role of city police in District schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Members of Youth United for Change, a student-led organizing group, say they have seen some positive changes in their schools since the release of the group’s report "Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia" one year ago.

But the group continues to push for alternatives to punitive disciplinary policies and for a new agreement limiting the role of city police inside schools.

According to Durant Ratcliff, a YUC member and senior at Kensington Business High School, the report gave students a new voice – and a "chance to be involved." When a student at his school was facing expulsion for an incident of misbehavior, Ratcliff said, "The students petitioned to let him stay, arguing that this [behavior] would not happen again."

They were successful.

And this is not the only progress they have seen in recent months.

Under pressure from advocates, the District formed a committee whose job is to manage potential student expulsion cases. As of January, only 11 expulsion recommendations had gone before the SRC. Last year’s total of expulsion recommendations was 237.

In addition, the District has removed the phrase "zero tolerance" from its student code of conduct.

The city’s high rate of school-based arrests and the frequent involvement of city police in schools are still pressing issues for students, Ratcliff said. At a YUC press conference in early March, students proposed a new "memorandum of understanding" to the District and city. This would provide that city police only be called into the schools in true safety emergencies.

"There is an old memorandum allowing city police to work inside of District schools, and that intimidates students," Ratcliff said.

Last year’s YUC report found that Philadelphia had the highest rate of in-school arrests among large districts in Pennsylvania. It cited many cases of students being arrested for low-level offenses.

YUC members are taking this and other concerns and proposals to City Council this spring. One goal is to get Council support for a "restorative practices" model for addressing school discipline issues.

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