Hopes for Gianna Floyd & All Students of Color
Standing proudly on the White House lawn on Tuesday, George Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter Gianna led the chant to say his name as the country marked the anniversary of his slaying. His murder sparked a year of protest and what President Obama now coins as American’s third racial reckoning.
Gianna experienced police violence in a traumatic way that will forever affect her life. There are far too many Giannas who are victimized by the over-policing in their communities and most tragically in the place where they should be nurtured the most – in their schools.
Across the country, it’s normal for many Black and Hispanic students to see uniformed school resource officers who patrol their lunchrooms, hallways, and school assemblies. Just shy of 70,000 students nationally were arrested in school, according to a 2014 analysis by Education Week. Pennsylvania embarrassingly ranked third, accounting for more than 5,000 of the students arrested in school. Without question, the School District of Philadelphia’s past aggressive in-school policing model inflated the state’s total tally.
Now, and finally, the role of school safety officers (known by children as cops) in schools is changing dramatically in Philly schools. “Safety doesn’t require we criminalize normal adolescent behavior,” said Kevin Bethel, Chief of School Safety for the School District of Philadelphia. And the proof is in the pudding. In just six years, the number of students arrested in schools dropped by five times resulting in the arrest of 269 students in 2019. That’s 269 too many, but it’s a far cry from the 1,600 students put through the ropes of the criminal justice system for school infractions in 2014.
Philadelphia’s new approach may offer a glimmer of hope for suburban districts where Black and Hispanic children are dramatically outnumbered by White peers. PCCY found that Black students are suspended 3.5 times as often as White students, given their share of enrollment.
When cops are on campus, their trained reaction is to process student infractions as official crimes, handcuffing students and hauling them off to the station. And time and again the data shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately referred to and arrested by police in school according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Meanwhile the academic research is replete with data showing that students in large urban districts need positive relationships; Mentors at Every Door should be the motto.
That’s why the changes that Bethel put in place are showing such promise. From taking the school cops out of uniform, adding women to the force (now accounting for 40% of the force), and training in restorative practices, the Philly school cops are beginning to offer some students the caring shoulder they need. Going beyond the traditional training topics, Bethel’s even trained his force in de-escalation, trauma and anti-racists practices and yes, even mentoring.
Year after year, PCCY and dozens of other organizations and leaders call on the School District of Philadelphia to hire social workers—not cops—to improve school climate and deal with the real needs of students who carry the burden of trauma with them through the school doors. We stand by that position. Now, we also call on the District and all districts in our region to support and replicate the visionary work that Bethel is advancing that is opening up a world of opportunity for our students by closing the doors to youth detention.
The tragedy of George Floyd’s murder has sparked a national reimagining about policing. Right here in Philadelphia, a new vision is taking hold and it’s working for our kids. As we continue to say his name, we honor his memory and commit to a future where Gianna and all students of color can breathe.