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PSU members issue demands to Hite about school police

Greg Windle

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

Student representatives from the Philadelphia Student Union met Monday with Superintendent William Hite to discuss their list of six demands for the District, including the eventual elimination of school police officers. The demands were formulated after a PSU member was allegedly assaulted by a school police officer inside Benjamin Franklin High School in May.

The meeting was scheduled to last a half-hour and end at 4:30 p.m., but the three student representatives did not emerge from the meeting until 6 p.m., to the applause of Student Union members holding a rally on the front steps of District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

The cheering students held signs that read “Fund our future. Fund our schools,” and “More Cops = Less Trust.” They called for justice and student rights, and sang a song calling for students to take back what the School Reform Commission “stole,” namely, their “dignity.”

The meeting wasn’t scheduled until after Hite announced to the SRC that he was planning to meet with the Student Union.

“He said he had a meeting with the PSU,” said student spokesperson Kaila Caffey, “but that was the first I’d heard about it.”

Student Union director Hiram Rivera confirmed this. “That was a surprise to me, too, but I reached out to him to follow up. He said it must have been a different group, but he agreed to meet with us.”

The meeting resulted in Hite agreeing to four demands, and partially agreeing to a fifth, but rejecting the first demand: that the District fire the officer who allegedly assaulted Brian Burney on May 5 at Benjamin Franklin High School.

“We want this to be a process that is open,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. “We want to continue to talk and develop a better relationship.”

Hite agreed to implement four demands by the beginning of next school year, according to the student representatives. The District will make the school police directives and standards available to the public on its website, publish details about how it trains its officers, develop formal standards or guidelines for school police that follow national best practices, and establish a complaint procedure for students and parents to raise concerns about the operation of police in their schools. The Student Union suggested it be modeled after the system adopted by the Oakland Unified School District.

“This is going to have a ripple effect on districts around the country,” Rivera said.

The language that the District used to describe this agreement was less concrete.

“If standards and guidelines are not inclusive, additions will be added and students are invited to provide input and recommendations,” said Gallard in a statement.

And the District’s statement included another if: “Oakland Unified’s complaint procedure will be reviewed and if the current procedure needs improvement, the Oakland procedure will be used as needed.”

The student representatives seemed happy, but skeptical. They said Hite could have been more straightforward when it came to their two other demands — that the officer be fired and that the District eventually end the use of police in schools.

“I believe we were given the run-around with irrelevant statistics,” said student spokesperson Amon Carey, a classmate of Burney’s at Ben Franklin. The District decided not to fire the officer after the conclusion of a five-week investigation, conducted by the Office of School Safety — the same office that hires and employs the District’s school police officers.

A statement from the District on the investigation’s conclusion reads: “School Police Officer Jeffrey Maciocha used the appropriate amount of force necessary to bring the situation involving student Brian Burney under control as quickly and safely as possible.”

The incident occurred when Burney, a sophomore at Ben Franklin with a documented history of bladder problems, attempted to use a school bathroom without having the appropriate pass. The officer turned him away, and Burney began to argue.

What happened next is still in dispute. Burney threw an orange he was holding, hitting the wall of the hallway. The District’s conclusion states that the use of force was necessary. As the family’s attorney said last month, this relies on the assumption that the orange was thrown at the officer, and not thrown at the wall in frustration.

Burney also contended that the officer punched him in the face before pinning him to the ground. But a student cell phone video of the incident begins after Burney was already on the ground. Whether he was punched has also become a disputed point between the Student Union and the District, which concluded that Burney was not punched by the officer and that his facial injuries that resulted in a concussion came, instead, from Burney voluntarily slamming his face against the floor.

The District’s investigation involved 15 interviews with students and staff. The District’s statement mentions that the unnamed “investigator” also “reviewed surveillance video.” The Student Union has requested that the District release the video to the public. Gallard said that the District does not release any security camera footage unless officially requested by the Philadelphia Police Department.

Although Hite refused to fire the officer, he did agree to hire more nurses and counselors. Gallard’s statement reads: “there will be at least one nurse and counselor in every school building.” But that decision was made independently of the Burney incident.

However, Hite did not agree to completely divest from school police. He said, however, that the District did plan to hire more school climate managers while gradually downsizing the police force — a process he said the District has already begun. Gallard said the District already employs some school climate managers to “work directly with students to mediate conflicts.”

“It is unclear as to what the exact relationship to the school police is for climate managers,” Rivera said, “but they are adults in the building, out of uniform, tasked with maintaining a positive climate.”

“I think the money should go into counselors and nurses,” said Caffey. “That was something they said they would get by next year, but we’ll see.”

Deedee Rischer, a parent who was attending the rally, said that she was concerned with the lack of background checks for some officers hired by the District in recent years, which the state auditor general found to be a problem in both the 2011 and 2016 audits of the District.

“To volunteer two hours in the school each year, I have to get a background check,” Rischer said. “But, for some reason, for [some of] these officers working 40 hours a week, there is no background check.”

Rivera said that Hite told him the officers who did not have the required background checks were removed until their checks were completed, and that if they did not get background checks, they would not be allowed to resume working for the District.

“They also invited us to be a part of the conversation about training,” Rivera said. “This fight is not over. We’re going to continue to fight locally and nationally.”

The rally ended with the students huddling in a circle to recite, in unison, their closing chant: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

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