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Philadelphia reverses course on ‘zero tolerance’ discipline in schools

Some school districts are rethinking "zero tolerance" discipline policies, which lead to students being arrested for minor violations and disproportionately affect students of color. In 2014, a Philadelphia deputy police commissioner reversed a longstanding policy of automatic arrests, an approach that has lowered recidivism and improved school safety. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    West Philadelphia High School Principal Mary Dean hoped this would be a quiet Friday morning.

  • MARY DEAN:

    I expected more from you.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But school security just found two students with several vials of marijuana. They've detained them in handcuffs until Philadelphia police officers arrive. It's a common scene in a neighborhood with high rates of poverty and crime. And just a few years ago, under the school district's zero tolerance policy, both students would have been arrested, no questions asked. Today, it's likely only one student will be arrested, because he's already on probation, wearing an ankle bracelet.

  • POLICE OFFICER:

    You've already missed your chance. It's up. This is what I mean about you doing dumb stuff out there, and in here.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But for the other student, who has no record, there's another option:

  • POLICE OFFICER:

    You do what you're supposed to do, then it'll all go away. You don't have to worry about these charges or nothing. If you don't then all the marijuana charges will be brought against you.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Rather than being arrested, the student is put in the Philadelphia Police School diversion program. A citywide initiative that aims to keep kids out of the criminal justice system for misdemeanors. Things like having drugs in school. Or bringing items that are banned, like pocket knives and bb guns. Even hair combs and scissors, which could be dangerous.

  • TAMESHA GOLPHIN:

    You have a bottle opener, which can still be used as a weapon, it has a point.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Philadelphia police officer Tamesha Golphin says sometimes kids have a reasonable explanation.

  • SENAAJ JACKSON:

    Totally forgot the knife was in the book bag. I really forgot.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In March, 10th grader Senaaj Jackson set off a metal detector when, he says, he accidentally brought a kitchen knife to school. He'd been locked out of his house the night before, and borrowed the knife from his grandmother to pick the lock.

  • SENAAJ JACKSON:

    And I got in. And then I put the knife in my book bag and I then forgot to take it out. Then the next morning I went to school, and when I put my book bag through the monitor, he said we have a problem.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Senaaj says getting arrested would have affected the entire family. His mom works full time, so he helps take of care his 5 brothers and sisters.

  • SENAAJ JACKSON:

    The first thing I thought about was my mom. I don't want to go to jail. I got too many brothers and sisters, I got to be here for them. I got scared, my heart dropped, my stomach bubbling up. So I'm like, shh, I might be going away.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But Senaaj didn't "go away." He qualified for the new diversion program because, one, it was his first offense. And, two, it was a low-level offense that didn't involve a victim. So now Senaaj goes to a 90-day after-school program that provides mentoring and support. It includes group sessions where they discuss drugs and alcohol.

  • WOMAN:

    The reason why a lot of people do different types of drugs is because you have some kind of problem like he says stress.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And they talk about anger management and conflict resolution.

  • MAN:

    You guys are young. You guys are gonna have interactions with the police at some point.

  • SENAAJ JACKSON:

    The people that work there, they very respectful. They don't talk to you in a disrespectful way. Even if you disrespect them, they still talk to you respectfully. And that's one thing I like about them.

  • MARY DEAN:

    Sometimes it's difficult for just the parents and school, but now you have another entity working towards you going in the right direction.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Principal Mary Dean has worked in the Philadelphia school district for 26 years.

  • PRINCIPAL DEAN:

    In a high needs environment like this one, our students need it, they really do. I tell everyone, I have the smartest kids in the city. They are just brilliant. But you can't see that light, that brilliance because of all of the difficulties that they bring with them when they come into our environment.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Before under the zero-tolerance policy, was any of that looked at?

  • PRINCIPAL DEAN:

    No. No. You have to be arrested.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Many U.S. school districts adopted some form of zero tolerance during the 80's and 90's as they tried to crack down on things like drugs and school shootings. Naomi Goldstein is an expert in juvenile justice and a professor of psychology at Drexel University. She says kids will often outgrow bad behavior. And automatically arresting them can actually make things worse.

  • NAOMI GOLDSTEIN:

    For kids who end up in the system, the chances that they continue their involvement over time increase they're now exposed to the thinking and the behaviors of other kids who are heavily involved in the system or who have really done even things that are much more serious, which could then influence them in really negative ways, and so create a negative cycle.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Goldstein says that cycle often starts at school. She says harsh penalties for breaking school rules push kids, minorities disproportionately, into the criminal justice system.

  • KEVIN BETHEL:

    You know, 30 years ago I went through the academy, 'lock em up' and let someone else deal with those back-end issues.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Kevin Bethel spent eight years as the deputy police commissioner overseeing security in the Philadelphia Public Schools. He used to be in charge of locking kids up.

  • KEVIN BETHEL:

    That would involve taking that child from school, placing them in one of our six facilities around the city to process the juvenile, and be fingerprinted, photographed, held in a cell block upwards of six hours, waiting for a parent to arrive.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But then about six years ago, Bethel began attending programs and workshops, were he met advocates from other cities who were reforming their approach to juvenile justice. He learned more about adolescent development, trauma, and why kids act out.

  • KEVIN BETHEL:

    It's hard for me to understand how we had allowed ourselves to be a part of that process, and really had not taken a step back and been more thoughtful about what it would mean to take a child into the cell block, particularly when we come from a city with so much poverty, and so much trauma, so much stress, and not understanding what was happening to that child.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And Bethel took a hard look at the reasons kids were getting arrested

  • KEVIN BETHEL:

    When I look at what we were locking them up for, you know, when you saw that a large percentage of them were just minor offenses, things that I did as a kid. You know, I had my little Cub Scout knife. I got into fights in schools. I did all that stuff. I'm looking down at a paper, and I'm locking up kids, and I'm a deputy commissioner. I did those things! And that was a moment for me, I turned to my bosses, and said, man, I can't do it anymore.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    He started the diversion program in 2014, announcing that officers would arrest only when it was absolutely necessary.

  • OFFICER GOLPHIN:

    I guess I was kind of leery.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Officer Golphin – who's worked the school beat for ten years – is assigned to six schools, including West Philadelphia High. She says teachers there were skeptical too.

  • OFFICER GOLPHIN:

    I think the teachers felt reassured when they saw us arresting kids. To them suspension was not good enough, they just want to see something done. They want to see that child go out in handcuffs. And so when the program started we weren't that clear on how things were gonna go, but then as the program progressed it go better and better. And I think it's great, I think it's really great now.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The program has had an impact. Throughout Philadelphia, student arrests have dropped by 71 percent, from nearly 1600 in 2013-14 to 456 this school year. At West Philadelphia High School, arrests dropped from 21 to just 2 last year. Recidivism rates have improved citywide, too. Before the program began, the rate for youth arrested was 27%. Today it's 14% for students who are diverted. And school safety improved. An average of 1,000 fewer serious incidents have been reported annually since the program began.

  • NAOMI GOLDSTEIN:

    In my nearly 20-year career looking at juvenile justice programs, again, it is almost unheard of to see results like this.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    A main reason for the successful results? Goldstein says the root causes of students' behavior are finally being addressed in the after school programs they're sent to. Like this one, called The Bridge. The diversion initiative has taken advantage of already existing programs funded by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. So there are no major new costs.

  • TERRINA SMITH:

    When the kids come in the door they're not treated like criminals, they're still kids.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Terrina Smith is a case manager at the bridge who counsels students and even visits the kids and their parents at home.

  • TERRINA SMITH:

    And a lot of times when kids come in the door, they come in for one thing but it's so much deeper than that. It could be problems at home, it could be a cry for help. And once they start breaking things down to me, it's like wow, this is a little adult here that had grown-up problems still as a kid.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    On Wednesday afternoons there's a mentoring group just for the boys… and another one just for the girls. Niche Smith is a 17-year-old high school senior. She was sent to the bridge after getting caught with a Taser at school.

  • NICHE SMITH:

    My mom handed it to me. She gave it to me. To protect myself. I used to go from school straight to work. And from work to home, wasn't getting off until like 11, 12.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    At first, niche didn't show up for the program. And when she did, she wouldn't participate. She was failing her classes at school, and says she had little ambition. But then she started to open up.

  • NICHE SMITH:

    I didn't want to go to college. I didn't. Because I just feel like I didn't want to do school no more. And then it was just like they talked to me, it was like you can do it, and I was like okay. And I can do it. I know I can, I got it in me.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Now, she's on track to graduate and will attend Penn State University in the fall. If she sees it through, she'll be the first in her family to get a college degree.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Are there kids who you just can't reach sometimes?

  • TERRINA SMITH:

    Unfortunately there are some kids that just whatever you do you're not going to reach them. But if we have five and only reach three, that's a major accomplishment, because that's three more that's not going to be back out on the street.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    As for Senaaj Jackson, Terrina checks in with him about his bad grades and skipping school.

  • TERRINA SMITH:

    You can't tell me "oh, I overslept I woke up late so I didn't go."

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And she pushes him on his career goals. He told her he's interested in being a barber.

  • TERRINA SMITH:

    So you just gonna be a regular barber?

  • SENAAJ JACKSON:

    I ain't gonna work there, I'm gonna own it!

  • TERRINA SMITH:

    You're gonna own your own shop and you're gonna have people work for you, alright.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So Terrina set him up with a mentor at a nearby barber shop, and he started there a few days later.

  • BARBER:

    While you're here we'll show you how we do it, you know, what we do. Show you how to hold the clippers

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    It's a chance for Senaaj to gain real world experience and a glimpse of a possible future.

  • BARBER:

    I might even have some equipment for you when you leave out of here, ok?

  • SENAAJ JACKSON:

    OK.

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