Open letter to Superintendent Dr. William Hite, Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Logan, and Office of School Safety Chief Inspector Carl W. Holmes, Jr.:
On Tuesday, February 2nd, students and staff at Kensington Urban Teaching Academy were placed on complete lockdown by the Philadelphia Police Department for over 90 minutes due to the reckless and irresponsible behavior of one School Police Officer.
We at Youth United for Change, as well as other community groups concerned about the state of public education in the City, have consistently and publicly expressed our frustration at the School District’s increasing reliance on police presence to “improve climate” in our schools (through a model of ‘neighborhood pacification’). Many of us have argued that this model deepens the process of criminalizing our youth and regarding them as threats and nuisances to the system, instead of placing them at the center of District policies and school practices as stakeholders in their own education.
As already reported by several media outlets, a Kensington Urban school officer reported to school police that his personal weapon was missing from its holster in his automobile. According to police spokeswoman, Officer Christine O’Brien, the officer reported that he did not lock his vehicle upon arriving on school premises. He was unsure if he had locked the vehicle, with his personal weapon inside, the night before. He had not checked if his personal weapon was in his vehicle before reporting for duty that morning. He reported it was stolen, but had not taken the basic precautions to assess when this had happened.
Once on lockdown, the police frisked every single student and staff member in the school building, and went through all of their belongings searching for the officer’s missing weapon. They did not find a weapon. While we clearly understand that school administrators and police have to comprehensively address a safety hazard of this kind, and were relieved no one in the community was hurt, we must continue to focus on the conditions that lead to the mistreatment of students. As the Police, the District and the City washed their hands in a collective sigh of relief – “better safe than sorry” – Kensington Urban students and staff were once again held as guilty until proven innocent. When schools do not address behavioral and climate issues with preventative and restorative practices, they rely on the police to use traditional intimidation tactics to control behavior. When an officer makes a careless mistake, these empty methods are all that are left to attempt to create a general sense of safety. When students are not appropriately supported throughout the school year, they will always be suspects when a safety hazard arises. Students were not being kept safe by the lockdown; they were presumed guilty and searched.
This was further highlighted by the fact that parents were not notified of the lockdown until after 12pm. Their children were locked in classrooms for over 90 minutes, without an understanding that their lives might have been in danger, and no effort was made to notify their parents. Once again, while it is possible that school staff on lockdown were not in a position to contact parents immediately, this is the logical result of a school system that does not place parent involvement as a central component of school accountability. Even though the School District has been promoting the implementation of School Advisory Councils across all neighborhood schools, no system was set in place at Kensington Urban to communicate with parents in a timely fashion when this kind of emergency arises.
This incident should serve as a pressing reminder that many of our parents continue to feel alienated from school staff, and marginal in their children’s education. When Ms. Elba Justino, a Kensington Urban parent has to find out through the news and social media that her child is on lockdown because an officer’s weapon went missing, she is painfully reminded of this fact. So were parents of John Wister Elementary School students, after organizing for months to keep the school under public control, when the School Reform Commission voted to privatize their school at the last minute, seemingly moving against Dr. Hite’s recommendations to keep it public, in an effective display of political theater.
While we are specifically calling for the Police Department to hold this Kensington Urban school police officer accountable, we must continue pushing for the democratization of our schools. As the District moves to vote on formalizing SACs across all neighborhood schools, and Mayor Kenney has tapped Mr. Otis Hackney and Ms. Susan Gobreski to lead the effort in implementing the Community School Model, we must ensure that parents and community members are granted concrete and specific oversight over school practices. Furthermore, we will continue to apply pressure on District officials to incorporate proven restorative justice practices that truly keep our students safe, and allow school staff to respond appropriately to conflict and safety hazards.
What happened yesterday was unacceptable and should give us all pause. If we are seriously committed to the idea that all students should have safe and supportive school climates, we must implement a new model that shifts the paradigm away from a need for school police officers, and towards strong relationships rooted in accountability, and opportunities for parents, students and teachers to actively take part in the shaping and governance of their schools. If the City is serious about adopting the new Community Schools Model, then real and effective community accountability in school governance must be at the center of the conversation.
Youth United for Change