Kevin Bethel at Henry C. Lea Elementary School in Philadelphia (Credit: Molly McCluskey)

Kevin Bethel didn’t become a police officer to lock up children. But it was under his watch as deputy police commissioner that Philadelphia’s school to-prison pipeline was in full effect.

Now retired, Bethel is on a mission to keep children out of prison, with a police-led school diversion program that is showing impressive results.

For nearly a decade, Philadelphia’s zero-tolerance policies meant that police had to be called for anything ranging from minor misconduct to possible weapons. Metal detectors at the schools meant that even items safely stowed in backpacks, such as pepper spray carried for a walk to school through a dangerous neighborhood, a box cutter or pair of shears needed for an after-school job or an art project resulted in a call to the police. Arrests almost always followed.

As deputy commissioner, Bethel oversaw more than 400 sworn and non-sworn officers tasked with school policing. But it was only at the end of his 29-year law enforcement career that he realized the environment he had helped create was doing more harm than good. He decided he wanted to make a change in school-based arrests, so he and his team took a hard look at laws governing school crimes — and found the law only required police be called, not that police had to make an arrest.

“My issue became, what is the trauma of me taking a 10-year-old child, for example, the minimum age for us, putting him in handcuffs, and taking him out of the school?” he said. “What were we doing to our young people?”

With the support and agreement of then-Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, Bethel made a simple decision: Stop arresting kids for minor offenses and instead divert them to social service programs when possible. Implementing the program didn’t rely on politicians or a committee. Thanks to the wording of the existing legislation, arrests could be avoided on a mass scale without being political.

Bethel retired from the police force in January 2016 to take a fellowship with the Stoneleigh Foundation, a local organization dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable youth, where he is managing and expanding the Police School Diversion Program he created as deputy commissioner.

On average, about 1,600 school-based arrests occurred in Philadelphia each year before the program was implemented in 2014. According to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program, Pennsylvania has the third-highest youth prison population after California and Texas.

Although the rates of youth incarceration across the United States have declined 53 percent from 2001 to 2013, the latest figures available show that 60,000 children are incarcerated throughout the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I used to always see a lot of my young people were getting arrested in schools. And I really didn’t know what it meant, and I didn’t really put a lot of ownership in it,” Bethel said.  “We live in this world where we just do the arrests. All these other folks are supposed to do the other stuff. And then I came to realize, when we put them into that process, sometimes they never come out.”

To qualify for the diversion program, a child must meet certain basic criteria. The incident must fall within a list of eligible low-level offenses, including fighting, or possession of minor weapons such as a pocketknife, pepper spray or small amounts of marijuana. They must also have never been arrested or diverted.

The checklist removes any ambiguity on the part of the responding officer, and in doing so, removes any bias regarding which are the “good” or “bad” kids, who either do or don’t deserve a second chance. If they meet the criteria, the kids aren’t arrested.

As part of this program, a new memorandum of understanding between the Philadelphia Police Department and the school system stipulates that “in no case shall a child who is ten years old or younger be arrested.”

Bethel works with a team of information technology professionals, statisticians, data analysts and researchers to break down which kids are being arrested, why, and where they’re within the city of Philadelphia they’re being arrested. He says the data team is as heavily involved as the police officers and as invested in the outcome.

Naomi Goldstein, professor of psychology at Drexel University, co-director of the JD-PhD Program in Law and Psychology, and director of the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab, also works with the program. She said that unlike traditional reporting, the program provides nearly real-time statistics. The program can pinpoint which schools had the most issues, whether students in one area were more likely to fight or bring in small weapons because of rough neighborhoods — or in one case, have more arrests because of an overzealous officer.

At the onset, Bethel’s goal was to reduce rates of school-based arrests by 50 percent over three years. According to a January report released by Goldstein and her team, in the first year the rate of school-based arrests had decreased by 54 percent. In the second year of the program, school-based arrests are down 64 percent since before the program. As of March 1, a total of 1,309 students have been diverted from arrests into social services, and Bethel says that for the 2016-2017 school year, school-based arrests are down another 14 percent to date.

The greatest reductions came in minor offenses — possessions of weapons and cutting instruments, marijuana possession and disorderly conduct. According to the report, 76 percent of school-based officers said that the diversion program had a positive effect on school safety.

Goldstein said the data team is also seeing a significant decrease in the rates of arrest following diversion both in school and in the community, as well as a 16 percent decline in reported behavioral incidents since the program began.

For Philadelphia police officer John Erickson, who has been on the police force for 21 years and has covered schools for six of them, the idea initially seemed too good to be true.

“We got a lot of kickback from the schools when it started,” Erickson said. “It was a struggle to tell (school officials) you’re not supposed to be expelling them. If you send them to a disciplinary school, that’s defeating the purpose of the diversion.”

But now, Erickson said students are more comfortable talking to the officers about problems at home or the causes behind fights at school because there is less fear.

William Hite, the superintendent of the Philadelphia school system, said the program has led to a noticeable shift within the schools.

“We’ve moved away from zero-tolerance policies, and we’re seeing a change in how students view their schools,” Hite said. “As a result of the program, we now have children and adults talking openly about their issues, and it changes the environment and culture.”

That was the case for Julian, 15, whose parents gave him permission to talk to a reporter but asked that his last name not be used. Julian didn’t wait for an inciting incident before reaching out for help.

“I was just on the wrong track, skipping school and behavior-wise,” he said. “I was using drugs and had some stress and anger.”

Julian went to a counselor, who referred him to social services. He entered a six-month program at Counseling Or Referral Assistance, a nonprofit health services and rehabilitation center that partners with the Department of Human Services. The program let him stay in school and attend therapy and tutoring sessions in the afternoons. Now home-schooled, Julian continues to see a therapist through the program and is planning to join the Army after he graduates.

“I never got arrested for it, but if you do the same thing that I was doing you’d probably get arrested,” he said.

Bethel sees Philadelphia’s success at diverting youth from arrests and detention as a pilot for other cities across the United States.

“If we can go through this process and then get police chiefs and other folks who manage policy and want to do things differently on board, I truly believe that policing can change the entire juvenile justice system,” he said.

Molly McCluskey is a freelance journalist based in Washington. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.

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