By Sarah Mohammed, Student
In the wake of the racial justice demonstrations around the nation, the roots of these problems can be traced back to education – what is supposed to be a fundamental part of our lives, ends up jeopardizing those who do not have equal access to opportunities. Schools are supposed to be an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of all students, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. In areas that are crime-ridden, especially in Philadelphia, schools are turned into a place of criminalization – the beginning of the “school-to-prison pipeline” that hinders the ability of students to succeed in life and pursue a career.
According to the Department of Human Services for the City of Philadelphia, there are 300 officers stationed in 214 of Philadelphia’s public schools. Although these officers are not armed, they carry handcuffs that can be used on students as young as the age of 10. To be taken out of a classroom for carrying something as simple as a pair of scissors can have long-term psychological effects on a kid. By encouraging officers to criminalize conflicts rather than de-escalate them, these students are trapped, essentially, in a prison that’s overcrowded and underfunded.
However, this is not to say there have been no efforts by Philadelphia to break the school-to-prison pipeline, especially in communities composed of minority students. Through the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, students who have committed an offense are examined by social workers and any other professionals involved in the student’s life. Based on the student’s individual situation, they are referred to an Intensive Prevention Services provider, where a case manager is assigned to the student. They work to provide them with specialized services that would help them break out of their so-called “criminal” cycle.
Despite successes in the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, such as reducing student arrests by 71%, it does not take away from the reality that many students are continuing to be arrested and charged with criminal offenses. Even in this program, there are faults – if a student is charged with a high-level offense, they must go through the arrest process, including being handcuffed, fingerprinted, and carrying a charge that will haunt them for the rest of their life. The foundation of why students participate in high-level offenses should be a topic that is addressed further in the Philadelphia community. When students live in crime-ridden areas, with high poverty levels, struggling to survive everyday life, they resort to tactics such as violence in order to gain an upper hand in a life that has continually oppressed and demeaned them.
In addition to an increased police presence in schools, Philadelphia has made metal detectors mandatory in all public high schools. This reiterates the idea that many schools do not present themselves as a welcoming environment for students to get an education. By walking through those metal detectors, the students are labeled as guilty, disproving the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” Over-policing and increased criminalized measures, disguised as safety measures, discourage students to actively attend school and engage in an educational environment. Community members within Philadelphia, including Councilmember Kendra Brooks, have called for the defunding of police.
To put things into perspective, the school security force has an allocated budget of $31 million, much of which could be diverted into more important employees, including social workers, psychologists, and nurses. This presents an alarming problem: there are only twelve social workers in the district under one supervisor. By not providing essential services to Philadelphia’s students, most of them coming from minority backgrounds, the education system significantly fails to live up to its expectation of providing nothing less than excellence.
As seen by the increase in racial justice efforts around the country, many people are becoming aware of racism not only present in the police department but in all institutions – this is better known as institutionalized racism, where institutions limit the amount of opportunities presented to people of color compared to their white counterparts. To level the opportunity gap for students in Philadelphia, community members can educate themselves about the benefits of eliminating metal detectors and police officers within public schools. The Philadelphia Student Union has already distributed a petition calling for the removal of police officers, who would be replaced with professionals who are trained in de-escalation and other services, such as social work. Though this may seem radical, and reducing the safety of students, there are examples in Philadelphia with schools without police. The charter network Mastery Schools creates a safe and nurturing environment by handling conflicts through the assistant principal, and every school is equipped with social workers, therapists, and other emotional support employees.
Through advocacy and the impact of the Philadelphia Student Union, the school-to- prison pipeline can effectively be eliminated by removing metal detectors in high schools and eliminating a police presence that criminalizes the behavior of young students. A nurturing school environment can be made possible by distributing the funds from the police to essential community workers, reducing the need for police officers to circulate the schools and propel students into the criminal system.
Advocacy efforts are a huge step towards breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, but more can be done. You can write to city council members or your school board to encourage them to discuss these new ideas that would create a better learning environment. Step up and create petitions, share them, and make your voice heard in the Philadelphia community. With combined measures, we can create a successful impact and end discriminatory measures toward students of color.