This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Jaden wasn’t thinking. Or, at least, he wasn’t thinking ahead.
The 14-year-old’s tall and sturdy body seems oversized for his baby face. He is a baseball player, a powerful third baseman on a travel team. Asked whether he can hit the long ball, he says, “Oh, yeah,” and flashes a smile that conveys both shyness and pride. “I also pitch.”
Asked another question, the words don’t come so easily. Why was he carrying a pocket knife in his backpack?
“The way I walk home, it was dangerous,” he stammers. “A lot of crackheads. I don’t know how to explain it. There are always people outside.”
This was the route from his South Philadelphia home to Preparatory Charter High School, where he was a freshman.
“My dad was like, it’s a bad way to walk home, down that street.”
He didn’t listen. This route was shorter. Plus, “the corner store is on my way. I always go to that corner store.”
Hence the pocket knife; it made him feel safer. He never used it, in or out of school. He knew he could be caught, but he wasn’t that worried. Day after day, his bag went through the metal detector and school officials never found it.
Except that day in October when they did and they called the cops, and he could have been arrested, with a police record and a maybe even a detour to a juvenile detention facility – a detour that could have derailed his school career. And maybe even his future.
But instead, he was referred to a diversion program, which gives young people special counseling and other services instead of an arrest record. Data show that the initiative has been wildly successful. School-based arrests are way down, and diverted youth are far less likely to be arrested within a year after the incident.
So instead of putting him in handcuffs, the police officers, “a girl cop and a guy cop,” as he put it, filled out some paperwork. “They asked me why I brung it. I told them.”
The male officer “said I was dumb.”
They called his father, told him what happened. His father came and took him home.
Jaden tells his story as he constructs a poster display at the Mamie Nichols Center in Point Breeze, where, instead of being in juvenile placement, he attends a program in “intensive prevention services” two days a week after school. There, he is learning life skills – the poster board is for an exercise called “my classroom economy,” in which each student is given a job and a goal. He also receives emotional and behavioral support, such as stress management and self regulation. Individual counseling, mentoring, and community activities are also offered.
The program is run by Diversified Community Services, one of six agencies citywide that have been contracted by Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services to work with youth who have shown troubling behavior. Or, like Jaden, they are referred under the pioneering diversion initiative for relatively minor and nonviolent breaches of school discipline codes – breaches that over time have all too often pushed young people into the maw of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Jaden is one of 1,800 young people who over the last four years have avoided arrest and a delinquency label due to this diversion initiative. It was the brainchild of former Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who became alarmed at the number of students who were being arrested in school in Philadelphia – nearly 1,600 in 2013-14. With 180 days in a school year, that comes out to almost nine arrests a day.
This high rate was, in part, a consequence of a “zero tolerance” discipline policy that called police on students as young as 10 years old, often for such offenses as possessing small amounts of marijuana, fistfights that didn’t result in injury, or – as in Jaden’s case – having a weapon that was never used or brandished. “Weapon” was broadly defined to include not only a pocket knife, but also sometimes everyday items like scissors and nail clippers.
The District abandoned the zero tolerance policy in 2012, but found that the number of arrests did not go down. Naomi Goldstein, professor of psychology at Drexel University and director of Drexel’s Juvenile Justice Research & Reform Lab, said this happened because although the policy shifted on paper, actual disciplinary practices in schools largely remained the same.
Bethel’s diversion initiative changed that. Since 2014, police have been trained to assess the situation before proceeding with arrest when summoned to a school. They use their judgment; students with no prior delinquency record who committed one of these low-level offenses were to be referred to the diversion program.
Since the initiative began, the arrest numbers have plummeted. The effect was immediate; in 2014-15, the first full year of implementation, arrests dropped by more than half to 724. In 2017- 18 they stood at 456, a 71 percent drop in the first four years of full implementation – well beyond the program’s original goal to cut the rate by 50 percent.
“It’s astonishing,” said Bethel.
Perhaps due to the reduction in arrests, schools are calling police far less often. Today, the schools are more successfully implementing a discipline philosophy that rewards positive behaviors, considers the impact of trauma on students, and rethinks the single-minded reliance on punishment. Serious incident reports are also going down.
There is another striking indicator of effectiveness, said Goldstein, who is evaluating the initiative.
Among students who are arrested for these low-level offenses in school, she found, 27 percent were arrested again within the year, more than a quarter. But among those put into the diversion program, just 14 percent were arrested within the following year, she said.
“That’s a significant reduction in recidivism,” she said. “Eighty-six percent of those diverted youth remain arrest-free – 86 percent of kids who would have had an arrest record don’t. That’s huge when you think about keeping them on a path to education, employment, and better life opportunities.”
That was Bethel’s thinking when he originated the diversion initiative.
“The long-term consequences of arresting kids for minor offenses extended well beyond the initial contact,” said Bethel, who now has a fellowship from the Stoneleigh Foundation and is working on a expanding and refining these and other policies with the goal of breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.
“You might have a 10-year-old kid in handcuffs because they put a knife in their bag in fear of going to and from school. Or a young lady carrying Mace because of protection she needs getting off the bus and having to walk three dangerous blocks to get home.”
These arrested students would be photographed, fingerprinted, and placed in a cell block, experiences that could scar them for life, Bethel said. He understood that this was a multi-faceted problem that required cooperation among police, schools, courts and social service agencies. “Many of these kids live in difficult environments, in poverty,” he said. “They suffer frustration and anger that leads to moving into delinquent status.”
Once adjudicated delinquent, he said, “Their record follows them. Their families may be kicked out of public housing. They’re not eligible for the military. It raises issues in terms of future employment.”
Returning from placement and trying to reenter school and society presents its own issues: Many received no meaningful education at their placements, making them fall even further behind in school. They remain on probation because they can’t afford fines and fees. They can’t get a job to help them pay any restitution that may have been ordered and accumulated while they were away.
“We have shown that if you divert rather than arrest, they do stay out of the system,” Bethel said.
Intensive Prevention Services, or IPS, the program that Jaden attends in Point Breeze, is operated through the Department of Human Services. It was started in 2012 for students who had exhibited troubling behavior and were referred by teachers, social workers, or family members. Typically it runs for 90 days, but students can stay for two or three stints, up to nine months.
In 2014, when the police diversion program started, IPS became the destination for those students as well.
“All our agencies that work with our young folks offer core components around life skills and better decisionmaking,” said Damon Trent, supervisor of the prevention unit in DHS’s Division of Juvenile Justice Services.
At Mamie Nichols, a comprehensive community services center, several dozen young people attend IPS programs two days a week. Between 12 and 15 are there any given day, divided into two age groups, some referred through the diversion initiative.
“Any child who goes to school in South Philly is eligible for our services,” said Carmen Caraballo, the IPS program director for Diversified Community Services at Mamie Nichols. They attend elementary schools such as E.M. Stanton, A.S. Jenks, and Southwark, and high schools such as Furness, South Philly, and Universal Audenried. A bus is provided for middle school students – children referred there can be as young as 10 – and older youth get SEPTA tokens.
Caraballo’s team, which includes counselors and case managers, visits the students’ homes and assess their families’ need for services. There is lots of education for the young people and their families around substance abuse.
“We’re building relationships and trust, providing a safe space, giving them positive role models and mentoring,” Caraballo said.
There are different activities each day, including filmmaking, photography, karate, and music therapy. Speakers come in to talk about students taking personal responsibility and exploring ways to improve their communities.
Often, the filmmaking revolves around their own experiences.
“Other than diversion kids, they’re usually sent to us for some minor brush with the law,” Caraballo said. “They can be selling marijuana. Most of the time they’re just experimenting; they tried it for the first time and didn’t realize the repercussions.”
One young woman who attended the program over the summer, for instance, was graduating at the top of her class at Furness High School and already had a full college scholarship when she was caught selling marijuana at the school. “We provided her drug and alcohol education, individual counseling, and were able to help improve the relationship between her and her mother. She is now doing well” in college, Caraballo said.
Other collaborators in the diversion program besides the Police Department and DHS are Family Court, Juvenile Probation, the District Attorney’s office, and the Youth Advocacy Project.
For his part, Jaden says his favorite activity at Mamie Nichols is the daily check-in – a simple “how was your day?” that lets the young people vent about what is happening in their lives while allowing the staff to assess where they are emotionally. He points out that the kids lead the process themselves.
And he likes the music therapy, where they might analyze a song and apply it to their own lives. Jaden was excited to study the Tupac song Dear Mama, in which a young man in the hood reflects on his relationship with his mother, concluding:
For a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man…
You are appreciated
Jaden, who now attends a District high school, is also enthusiastic about learning grown-up skills through the “classroom economy” exercise, where each student interviews for a particular job and is given advice on how to present themselves through dress and demeanor. He is the “decor manager,” which is why he was creating the recognition board listing jobs such as class banker and store manager.
“I learn how to be respectful, responsible and stuff,” he says. “They tell me how to do a job interview for real life. I’m happy I’m coming here.” His family, he says, “was mad that it happened. But they was kind of glad I got a second chance.”
The Notebook’s coverage of juvenile justice and the foster care systems is made possible by a grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund.
The Notebook is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at https://brokeinphilly.org and follow us on twitter @BrokeInPhilly.