For Branden Williams, the trouble started in high school.
"I didn't fit in," said Williams, 19, as he sat in a Starbucks on City Line Avenue. "Kids kept picking on me. I was the lightest kid in my class. See how light I am?" He held out his hand to show skin the color of coffee with cream. "People thought I was a nerd, I wore glasses – it was a problem."
Born in Southern California, Williams came to Philadelphia when he was 11 and made his way through middle school without much trouble. But he was the odd man out from day one of his freshman year at Center City's Freire Charter. "The way I walked, the way I talked, I wasn't an average Philadelphia teen," he said. "They shunned me."
What followed was a familiar spiral: arguments, fights, suspensions, transfers, and soon no school at all. Four out of ten Philadelphia high school students fail to earn a diploma, and every year, many follow a path like Williams'.
"They do mediation and things, but it never worked out," Williams recalled of Freire. "As soon as you do something, you get suspended. I got suspended a lot. I got left back, and the young kids thought I was a weirdo. I was like, 'I'm way out of step. I got to get out.'"
Williams left voluntarily as a sophomore, and began an odyssey through District schools that grew increasingly security-minded – "you had guards, security, discipline was real hard" – and increasingly chaotic.
"At Overbrook and Edison [high schools], kids didn't really learn too much. You went there to play, fight – irrelevant stuff," Williams said. His discipline problems continued, the suspensions mounted, and his grades plunged. After being transferred to three schools in a little more than a year, he stopped going altogether.
Williams considers himself ambitious and entrepreneurial. He's earned a GED through one of the Philadelphia Youth Network's "E3" centers. In two months he'll start an automotive tech program at Community College of Philadelphia.
"I'm doing pretty good now," he said, sipping hot chocolate. "I'm not worrying about it now like I did then. I'm not worried about what them girls or them dudes think of me. I just want to put all this behind me, all the bullying, [being] outcast."
Williams didn't describe himself as a "pushout." But he fits the profile described in Youth United for Change's recent report, "Pushed Out: Youth Voices on the Dropout Crisis." With the help of the nonprofit Research for Action, YUC's student organizers surveyed 273 of their peers to see why they'd left school. Only 12 percent cited bullying. Many more – almost 60 percent – cited disciplinary policies: multiple suspensions, forced transfers, school that was "like a prison."
Likewise, Williams didn't leave school just because he was bullied – he left because once he responded with violence of his own, he found himself in an escalating cycle of punishment and transfers that left him feeling as alienated from school as he'd once felt outcast by his peers.
The solution, according to YUC, is to spot and resolve issues long before they escalate. "The School District should move away from the overly punitive policies … and reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, disciplinary transfers to alternative schools, referrals to law enforcement, and school-based arrests," YUC's report concluded.
A related conclusion was reached by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, whose recent report on school safety found that the District needs a much more student-friendly set of practices to nip conflicts in the bud.
"We heard pretty specifically from students who said that there's more security guards in their school than there are school counselors," said commission member Sarah Ricks. "They were interested in after school activities, more extracurricular activities, different ways for them to engage with each other.
"In their opinion, their conflicts will go away when they're brought together by adults who are caring," Ricks said.
It's not hard to find students who chafe under the District's day-to-day safety policies, like the metal detectors through which students pass daily.
"They kind of treat us like prisoners," said Nadiyah Harrell, a junior at Martin Luther King High. "You have to take off everything except your shirt and your pants. Belts, boots, everything comes off."
At the same time, Harrell said, "security is necessary." District officials report that their detectors catch 700 to 1,000 weapons a year. The first metal detectors appeared in Philadelphia in the late 1990s, and they're now in every District high school.
"Sadly, I'm used to it now," said Tynisha Taylor, an Olney West High junior. "When I first came, I was like, 'Wow, we really have to go through all this? They're checking us like criminals?' But sometimes students are bad. Everybody doesn't have the right mindset."
And as much as students may dislike daily searches, many are more frustrated by schools' inability to maintain control inside the building. Throughout the District's Renaissance School meetings, parents and students spoke constantly of the need to address instability created by disruptive "kids in the hall."
Gratz High senior Ray Anderson's attitude was typical. The trouble at Gratz, he said, was "a batch of bad students, who are infections." In 2009-10, the 1,000-student school issued suspensions at a rate of almost two a day – 350 in a 181-day school year – and reported about 50 assaults. "It's amazing how one group of students can destroy an institution," Anderson said.
District officials know schools need to strike a better balance and be more secure, less alienating, and more consistent in their response to bullying, violence, and other climate issues.
"It's incumbent on the District to put a comprehensive plan in place," said Associate Superintendent Tomás Hanna. “There is uneven implementation. We want a systematic approach so that everyone is clear on what needs to happen.”
But when it comes to the safety and climate of a given building, Brendan Lee, the District’s executive director of school safety, says leadership remains the most important factor.
Lee’s 400 school police officers run the metal detectors, guard entrances, and respond to crimes like assaults and drug use. But it’s school staff, Lee said, who must handle classroom behavior, code-of-conduct violations, and the countless student conflicts that don’t rise to the level of a “serious incident.”
“We don’t want to become the bad guy for a cell phone or a classroom issue,” said Lee. “If they handle the discipline, we can handle the serious incidents.”
Every principal is expected to manage a “safety team,” said Lee, that includes school police and school staff. The size, style, and effectiveness of these teams vary from school to school. “They’re supposed to have a safety team, let’s put it that way,” said Lee. “How they manage the safety team is another thing.”
At Roxborough High, principal Steve Brandt says the team approach works. When he took the job last year, Roxborough was in its second year on the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” list; in 2009-10, the 800-student school reported over 50 assaults. Brandt assembled a safety team that meets weekly and gave it clear instructions for handling daily discipline. Under Brandt, District officials say Roxborough is reporting a 74 percent reduction in crime.
But Brandt believes the real key to long-term school safety isn’t enforcement, but academic culture. For students to respect school discipline, he said, they have to believe that school has a purpose.
“I had half my freshman class go to Chestnut Hill College yesterday. The other half is there today,” Brandt said. “One of the professors agreed to teach the kids over these two days. I want them to [ask themselves:] ‘Am I doing what’s necessary to be successful at the college level?’
“I didn’t want to wait until junior, senior year. I wanted to do it in their freshman year, so they can change whatever they’re doing, or not doing, to get on the track to be successful.”
Brandt is not alone with this philosophy. Throughout the Renaissance process, both charter providers and District officials told school communities that the key to discipline is twofold: engaging academic programs and effective teamwork among administrators, guards, and community groups. Everyone agrees: safety depends on strong relationships between students and adults.
That’s one thing Branden Williams says he never had. Looking back on his time in the District, he can’t name a single adult with whom he built a lasting bond of trust. “Everything I had to handle myself,” he said. “They put us all in the same category. It got to the point where I didn’t care. I wanted to leave.”