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Philadelphia outlines school safety plan in response to escalating violence

Kevin Bethel stands at a podium with microphones attached.

Kevin Bethel, the Philadelphia school district’s top school safety official, speaks at a press conference last year. The district has unveiled a school safety plan for the 2022-23 school year that includes an enhanced central threat assessment team, more cameras around schools, and a beefed-up police presence when students are going to and from schools.

Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Philadelphia city and school officials Monday sought to reassure the public that children will be  safe during the next school year by outlining new programs and policies designed to monitor and prevent threats in schools and neighborhoods. 

Police presence around schools will increase at arrival and dismissal times, and there will be a “safe paths” program in which neighborhood residents patrol the areas around eight high schools. And the district’s “threat assessment” team will expand, as will the number of safety officers in schools. 

District officials will also be able to monitor 100 security cameras that the city is installing near schools in high-crime neighborhoods.

The variety of efforts to make students safer come as gun violence has escalated in the city and fears about school safety persist in the wake of the school shooting earlier this year in Uvalde, Texas. Officials provided several details about what the new and ongoing security measures do and don’t mean for schools and communities, but also said broader factors involving shootings and the illegal possession of firearms around schools make the environment for students and staff more difficult.

Philadelphia experienced a record number of homicides in Philadelphia in 2021, and is nearly on pace to match that number so far in 2022. And between September 2021 and July 22 of this year, roughly equivalent to the previous school year, 119 young people under 22 were killed by gun violence and 304 were wounded, said Kevin Bethel, the district’s chief of school safety and a former Philadelphia deputy police commissioner.

Of the 119 killed, 47 were actively enrolled in district or charter schools; 36 of the 47 were 18 years old or younger.

The number of guns around schools and gun crime affecting schools have both increased, said Bethel, who added that the district previously thought gun crime as a safety concern would be less of an issue for schools post-COVID than behavioral problems. 

“I do want to constantly emphasize that schools remain the safest place for our students and we are committed to providing a safe, secure and supportive learning environment for all of our students,” he said.

The first day of school is Aug. 29. 

Seventeen guns were found in and around schools in the 2021-22 school year; before the pandemic, in a typical school year, just a couple were recovered annually. While metal detectors will remain in all city high schools, a program that started last school year to randomly check for weapons in schools with seventh and eighth grades will not be in place when the school year begins.

Bethel also said that this year, the district is hiring 26 more safety officers so that 52 schools that had part-time officers will now have full-time coverage. These officers work for the district and aren’t connected to the city police force.

The district’s school safety officers will continue not to carry weapons, but they will be supported by Philadelphia police as students arrive and leave schools.

“We firmly believe [we have] the best trained school safety officers in the country,” Bethel said. 

The district is also adding two mental health professionals to its central “threat assessment” team. This team assists school-based personnel when students threaten others or say they will harm themselves. Last year, Bethel said, the team responded to 225 such incidents. 

Outside of school buildings this year, 45 people from the Institute for the Development of African American Youth will be trained to patrol the areas around the following high schools: Northeast, Lincoln, Roxborough, Sayre, West Philadelphia, Motivation, Edison, and Bartram. 

The program is modeled on one in Chicago that pays people and has had some success. Chicago Public Schools is spending $22 million on its Safe Passage program for the 2022-23 school year. Philadelphia, a significantly smaller city than Chicago, has so far allotted $250,000 a year to its own  program for two years.

In addition to that, there will be enhanced and more visible police patrols during school arrivals and dismissals, said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who added that these will “not come at the expense of routine patrols.”

Meanwhile, the plan to install 100 new security cameras, which officials announced in June, “is one part of a critical effort to ensure the epidemic of gun violence does not impact children or interfere with their learning, development or well-being,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at Monday’s press conference.

Deputy Mayor Vanessa Garrett Harley, who is in charge of the city’s Office of Children and Families, highlighted after-school offerings available to young people, and said these activities are also key to reducing violence. 

She said there are 129 “out of school time” programs with 6,400 spaces and another 2,500 in activities run by Parks and Recreation. There are also programs available in many neighborhoods through Philadelphia public library branches, she said. Activities in these programs range from chess and coding to sports and dance. 

“These are safe and enriching spaces for children to go after school,” she said.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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