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Darryl Murphy

Darryl Murphy / The Notebook

Parents and advocates call for more school-police accountability after incident at Solis-Cohen Elementary

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

The parents of a 3rd-grade student called the Philadelphia School District’s process for handling complaints against school police officers “a complete mess” on Tuesday during a press conference held by the Philadelphia Student Union.

Lawyers from the Education Law Center, Asa Khalif of #BlackLivesMatter Philly, and members of Youth United for Change joined PSU and the student’s parents in calling for enforcement of the complaint process about school police after an Oct. 20 incident at Solis-Cohen Elementary.

According to a complaint filed by parents Isaac Gardner Sr. and Lauren Gardner, 8-year-old Isaac Gardner Jr., a student at the school, was forcibly removed from his classroom by a school police officer and taken into a staff bathroom after a disagreement with his art teacher escalated.

The officer has since been removed from the school while the District conducts an investigation, but the parents say the action is too little, too late. They say the District’s own school-police procedures were not followed in this case.

About 30 people gathered in front of District headquarters to call for the complaint procedures to be followed.

“This could happen to anybody’s child,” said the student’s father. “The complaint system is a complete mess. The whole system is corrupt. They need a better system so people can know that you have someone you can go to when your child is being abused from these school police officers.”

Isaac’s parents say the incident escalated after the school’s art teacher asked the 3rd grader to move to the back of the class because he was having some trouble with his seatmates. He questioned why he was being moved and would not change his seat. When the class was over, Isaac still would not move as the next group of students gathered by the door to enter the room. At that point, the art teacher called the main office for assistance.

A school police officer arrived, picked Isaac up, and removed him from the classroom.

Isaac’s family alleges that the officer dragged him out of the classroom into the hall, then shoved him into a staff bathroom, where he physically and verbally abused the child. Isaac’s sister, Sahara, saw the incident; she was among the students waiting to enter the art class.

In a written account of what took place in the bathroom, Isaac wrote that the officer “started cussing me out” and called him names like “sissy” and “baby.” The officer told him: “ I don’t give a damn about your dad” and “you are nothing but a sissy,” Isaac’s account says.

Isaac told his father that his counselor arrived to take him out of the bathroom and that he stayed with her for the rest of the school day, then went to his afterschool program. He and his sister both attended that program before being picked up by their father.

Gardner said that while he was picking up his son and daughter from school, he spoke with the art teacher, but didn’t get the full story about what happened. Though she told him about the insubordination, the teacher made no mention of Isaac’s removal from class. Gardner said he made Isaac apologize to the teacher.

Gardner said he didn’t find out about the police involvement until later that night, when his daughter reported seeing Isaac in the bathroom with the officer.

“Never once did [the teacher] tell me that she called the office and a cop came and physically removed my son from her class,” said Gardner. “Not once did she tell me that.”

On Oct. 23, the Monday after the Friday incident, Isaac’s parents filed a complaint with the Office of Family and Community Engagement.

Gardner said no one at the District told him about the school-police complaint form. He said he wasn’t aware of it until two weeks later when he met with lawyers from the Education Law Center.

“It was really important for us to ensure that he had filed the actual official school-police complaint form,” said Yvelisse Pelotte, a lawyer from the Education Law Center. “Because it is really important to make sure that when these kinds of abuses happen that they’re going through the proper channel and that the District is investigating with fidelity according to the metrics that it outlined.”

Starting in April 2017, the District implemented a school-police complaint procedure in which students who believe their rights have been violated by school police can report it to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities via an online form.

After the form is completed, it is forwarded to the Office of School Safety for an investigation.

The new procedure was put in place in response to an incident at Benjamin Franklin High School involving a student and a school police officer in May 2016.

Gardner filled out the school-police complaint form online on Nov. 6 and received an email from Tyler Wims, director of student leadership, shortly after. The email assured Gardner that an investigation was underway and that he would hear from an investigator. However, the family heard from no one until minutes before the press conference, a full week after the 30-day investigation period was over.

In an email after the press conference, District spokesman Lee Whack confirmed that the investigation was continuing.

“This matter is still being investigated. Anytime we get a report like this, we treat it very seriously because the safety of our students is always our top priority,” Whack wrote. "The school police officer was immediately removed from the school when this was reported and will not be in a school until the investigation is complete.”

Isaac’s parents said they plan to press charges against the officer.

“What if he did this to someone else’s child?” said Lauren Gardner. “This is something that affects our whole life and our family.”

Immediately after the incident, the District did forward the case to the Department of Human Services, as is customary when abuse by a District employee is alleged. The DHS investigation found that the claims of abuse were “unfounded.”

Julien Terrell, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, said the late response to the parents’ complaint is indicative of the District’s failure to take the accountability of school police seriously. The student union worked with the District to implement the school-police complaint procedure, but Terrell said progress on making it a substantial practice has been stalled.

“The system doesn’t mean anything if it is not able to be used,” said Terrell. “And the fact that they haven’t been sharing it, the fact that they haven’t been training, the fact that they haven’t been moving forward with the agreement that they had with our members, I think, really shows that they don’t take the system seriously."