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June 26, 2020

Philly schools' plan to rebrand police as 'safety officers' draws ire of student union

Reform effort does not go far enough, group says

Police Schools
school district philly police Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Members of the Philadelphia Student Union voiced their disapproval of the school district's plan to rebrand school police as 'safety officers.'

The School District of Philadelphia plans to transform the duties of its school police officers, rebranding them as so-called "safety officers" responsible for mentoring students. But a group of students says the move fails to satisfy their policing concerns. 

The district's 350 unarmed officers will wear less severe uniforms and perform slightly different jobs when students return to schools this fall. 

The change had been underway before the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis Police, sparked a nationwide movement calling for police reform. 

School Security Officer Kevin Bethel first outlined the reform at a school board meeting in May, noting uniforms will be "softer" and officers will undergo continuous training on adolescent development, trauma-informed policing, de-escalation strategies and mentoring skills. 

The name change is partly the result of a change in Pennsylvania state code, which now only allows sworn officers to serve under the title of school police. The district's officers do not meet that standard.

The officers carry handcuffs but not firearms. They staff the metal detectors stationed at the city's high schools, among other responsibilities. 

At a virtual school board meeting Thursday, board member Lee Huang said officers will move to focus on "caring for students than surveilling them," The Inquirer reported

Protesters across the nation have advocated for the removal of school police in their calls to defund police. School districts in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and Oakland have moved to scale back policing. 

Members of the Philadelphia Student Union, a group of youth that has campaigned to replace school police with community members trained in de-escalation and restorative justice skills, addressed the school board Thursday, saying the current reform effort doesn't do enough.

"Changing the uniforms that school police wear won’t change the dynamic between Black students and school police," a Masterman High School student said, according to the PSU's Twitter account.  

petition created by the group advocating for police-free schools has gathered more than 13,000 signatures. The group also has argued that the $31 million the district spends on school security would be better allocated to ensuring schools have enough librarians, counselors, nurses and teachers. 

City Council Member Kendra Brooks also called for the removal of police, connecting the issue of school policing to the policing problems occurring in under-resourced and predominantly Black communities. 

"When we talk about police in schools ... it's important to note who gets policed," Brooks said. 

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