This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
Philadelphia School District has directed school police officers to stop responding to calls related to Level 1 student conduct offenses. The proscribed violations range from "failure to follow classroom rules" to "truancy" to "verbal altercations" to "inappropriate touching/public displays of affection."
"These infractions are not criminal offenses; they are classroom/student management issues," wrote District Chief Inspector Carl W. Holmes to school administrators and school police in a memo dated March 10.
The memo states that school police should "respond to all calls that are criminal in nature, or where persons involved are violent or threatening."
In the event that they are called to other incidents, officers should "request the presence of an administrator, counselor, or administrative designee," the memo explains.
("Inappropriate touching" does not include non-consensual sexual acts, which are designated Level 2 offenses).
The School District’s chief of student services, Karyn Lynch, characterized the policy shift as "part of a complement of changes" designed to ensure safer schools and build better school culture.
"It’s all part of the effort to ensure that students aren’t over-arrested," Lynch said, "and really, this is an effort to try and assign to individuals what their duties and responsibilities and their skill set is best related to."
Lynch said this change goes hand-in-hand with other District imperatives, including its implementation of the Response to Instruction and Intervention Initiative.
In line with that program, all teachers hired last year went through a conflict-resolution program that focuses on social and emotional learning. The program was developed by Temple University’s College of Education.
The District has also began offering behavioral management and behavioral health training to all staff in order to improve "their ability to engage with students," Lynch said, and to better understand "why students sometimes have the reactions that they have within a school."
Social justice education advocates praised the District’s decision to put this policy in writing. Too often, they say, students are arrested or expelled for minor offenses that then negatively affect their chances of graduation.
"Schools should not be using police as school disciplinarians," said Deborah Klehr, senior staff attorney at Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center.