General board hearing Thursday likely to focus on school officers and reopening plans
The Philadelphia Board of Education is holding an open public hearing Thursday afternoon, one of two that it is required by the City Charter to conduct annually on general topics.
The three-hour meeting, which starts at 4 p.m., has no agenda except hearing from speakers. Student activists plan to renew their calls for police-free schools. Many others have registered to air their concerns about the conditions under which schools will resume in the fall, said Board President Joyce Wilkerson. People can also send comments and concerns to the board in writing.
Altogether, 39 people have registered to speak, said board spokesperson Janice Hatfield.
Regarding the role of police in schools, Wilkerson said that students have already had an impact on the District’s thinking. She cites the hiring of former Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, known for his work nationally to transform how police relate to young people, to supervise a cadre of more than 350 school security officers.
“There’s been a wholesale shift in focus,” said Wilkerson. “We’re revamping the way the District thinks about safety in the schools, and that is in large part a result of young people coming to our board meetings. I give Dr. Hite credit for taking a step back and having a much more profound and thoughtful approach to the issue.”
She added: “We’ve still got a lot of work to do to get everybody trained and on the same page. It is a huge task.”
Both the Philadelphia Student Union and UrbEd, another student advocacy group, have outlined agendas and demands for changing a “culture of policing” in schools to one focused on restorative justice and providing students with more supports in social services and mental health. The District spends more than $31 million on security.
PSU has an online petition on Change.org calling for school police to be replaced by community members trained in restorative justice and de-escalation tactics. They also want to end the current Memorandum of Understanding that the District has with the Philadelphia Police Department, which outlines the terms and conditions under which police are called to the schools and what they are permitted to do once they get there. Under state law, every district and charter school must have such a legal understanding.
Bethel has reached out to both groups and said Wednesday that he had a meeting with UrbEd, a nonprofit founded by recent Science Leadership Academy graduates who are intent on bringing more equity to education.
UrbEd organized an email campaign in which students and others wrote board members daily calling for a “transition away from school resource officers to community-based safety officers,” who are retrained, including in anti-racism, to prioritize student health and safety over discipline. The group also wants some of the money spent on security to be reallocated to other needs, including more nurses and arts programming.
Bethel said that he has reached out to PSU and that he is awaiting a time to meet with them. PSU is planning a virtual rally before the 4 p.m. hearing to press their demands, and six members of the group have signed up to speak on police-free schools.
At the UrbEd meeting, Bethel said, he emphasized that he wants students to continue to have a voice.
“They are our constituency,” he said. “I said that we’ll always be respectful of them and hope they’ll be respectful of us and that while we won’t agree on everything, we can work on consensus and create a very strong partnership that can help our work moving forward.”
Wilkerson said of Bethel: “His whole sense is that we don’t need safety officers as much as we need people who can relate to children, who are trained in trauma-informed care, and when there are crises in schools that they ought to bring non-policing skills to bear.”
Making this all happen, she said, still “is a work in progress.”
The meeting will be live-streamed on the District’s PSTV channel and on its website.