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School District says it did not handle incident at Solis-Cohen Elementary properly

A student and a school police officer were involved. The District also “made a bad situation worse” by failing to address a complaint against the officer, according to a statement.

Darryl Murphy

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

The School District of Philadelphia has conceded that it did not handle properly an October incident involving a school police officer and a 3rd grader at Solis-Cohen Elementary.

Further, in a statement issued Dec. 28, the District said it “made a bad situation worse” by failing to address promptly a complaint against the officer.

On Oct. 20, according to a complaint filed by his parents, Isaac Gardner Jr., a student at the school, was dragged out of a classroom and taken to a staff bathroom by a school police officer after he would not follow his art teacher’s instructions to get up and change classes.

In issuing the official response, District spokesman Lee Whack acknowledged “that we as a team did not handle a minor classroom incident at Solis-Cohen Elementary School correctly. … School police are in place for the sole purpose of ensuring the safety and security of the entire school community. Officers are not to be utilized for classroom management purposes under any circumstances, and individuals at the school did not meet the District’s expectations on Oct. 20.”

In addition to their concerns about using the school police officer for classroom discipline, the student’s parents were unhappy with the District process for handling their complaint against the officer.

Parents Isaac and Lauren Gardner spoke with school officials soon after they learned about the incident involving their son, but they did not file a formal complaint against the officer for two weeks because they were not informed by any District employees that the complaint process existed. They said they learned about the complaint process from the Education Law Center, where they sought help.

After the formal complaint was filed, they received only an email promising an investigation. The 30-day investigation period came and went without a word from the District.

At a press conference in December organized by the Philadelphia Student Union, the Gardners alleged that the District had mishandled the complaint. Isaac Gardner Sr. also spoke about the incident at the December meeting of the School Reform Commission and met with Superintendent William Hite afterward to address the issue further.

Whack said Hite is committed to improving the process.

“A great deal of effort has been spent this past year, in partnership with the Philadelphia Student Union and other advocates, to design a process to address these types of concerns,” Whack said. “We must ensure that all staff understand the District’s expectations in this regard and are held accountable to following the new process.”

Whack also said Gardner would be involved with “a team of administrators in reviewing the role of school police” in District schools and “the ways of communicating this role to families, students, staff and the community.”

The District also committed to taking “the necessary steps to ensure that all members of our school communities know our commitment to safe school environments that are dedicated to promoting the integrity and value of all."

Though Isaac Gardner Sr. said he won’t be satisfied “until the officer is terminated,” he said he is glad to have a part in reviewing the roles of school police and plans to go “full throttle with this.” He also said a lot of parents reached out to him with stories about how the District had mishandled their complaints.

“Hopefully, with them allowing me to be on their committee as a parent, things will get better,” he said. “People want to know their child is safe and something will be done if their child is done wrong.”

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