On Kevin Bethel’s watch, the Philadelphia School District reshaped and rebranded its school police force, shifting from a traditional law-enforcement group to “school safety officers,” with an emphasis on mentoring and supporting students.
Bethel, whom Mayor-Elect Cherelle Parker has tapped as the city’s next police commissioner, has spent the last four years as the Philadelphia School District’s safety chief, steering the system away from arrests and insisting on trauma-informed practices, restorative justice and training in adolescent development for his officers.
After retiring as a deputy police commissioner in 2016, Bethel became a Stoneleigh Fellow, earning national attention for the pre-arrest diversion program he created, which slashed district student arrest rates by 84% in six years.
Eventually, former Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. convinced Bethel to work for the district.
» READ MORE: Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker has tapped Kevin Bethel for police commissioner, source says
A focus on juvenile justice
In the last years of Bethel’s city police work, he oversaw school police operations. A hard look at student arrest data shocked him, he has said: 1,600 students were locked up in the 2013-14 school year.
Was the city perpetuating the “school-to-prison pipeline,” he wondered, moving Black and brown students from economically disadvantaged homes to schools with draconian discipline policies, courtrooms and jails?
“I remember walking in the door and saying to [then-Commissioner Charles H.] Ramsey, I couldn’t do it anymore, that this was wrong,’” Bethel said. “I really thought about the trauma of what that looked like, what did it mean when I took a 10-year-old child out of the school in cuffs, take him into headquarters, fingerprint him or her, because they came to school with a pair of scissors. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Instead of arresting first-time offenders, the diversion program offered social services. Department of Human Services workers got involved with qualified students, attempting to figure out why they acted out and how to address unmet needs.
Bethel worked as a consultant nationally before eventually agreeing to work directly for Hite.
In 2019, he pledged “a reboot” of the school police force accomplished “in a thoughtful and effective way. At the end of the day, part of our charge is to provide service, and I think sometimes we get caught in this space where we forget about empathy.”
The next year, Bethel asked the Philadelphia school board to sign off big, formal changes to his force of about 300 officers, none of whom are permitted to carry guns. Instead of school police in traditional uniforms, the force became known as school safety officers wearing polo shirts.
The shift, which at the time officials said was related to a change in school code that prohibited anyone not a sworn officer from carrying the title of “police,” came as some other districts abolished their school police forces. Bethel said that Philadelphia schools still needed a safety force, but vowed that it would be “a different organization.”
What happened in the district under Bethel?
As gun violence surged in the city, Bethel looked for ways to keep students safe, often attracting outside funding to pay for programs.
In 2021, he introduced the “Safe Paths” program, modeled after a similar effort in Chicago, paying community members in targeted neighborhoods to monitor the areas around schools as children make their way to and from classes.
Along with former Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, Bethel introduced a safety zone program that stationed additional city police in 27 separate areas encompassing 40 district and charter schools, monitoring students’ passage to and from school.
For a time, Bethel ordered random weapons scans at the district’s middle schools, though he ended that practice after a few months because he said he was “very conscious of the impact that it has on putting children through metal detectors.”
In August, Bethel announced a new tack — “minimally invasive gun detection” at middle schools. Instead of walking through a metal detector or even needing to remove bags and submit to a search, students walk between two parallel poles, and safety officers are alerted if a weapon is detected.
“I was looking for something that did not add to the trauma of the young people,” Bethel said in August. “We felt this was a less-intrusive, very minimal way to do it.”
He also added drones to the district’s patrolling strategy.
How was he received?
Personable, affable and comfortable on a big stage, Bethel generally earned high marks in district circles. When Tony B. Watlington Sr. took over as superintendent, he kept Bethel on and has repeatedly expressed confidence in his leadership.
But Bethel’s turning away from more traditional policing styles in schools rankled some, to be sure.
Some critics didn’t like the shift to new uniforms and said students had less respect for officers in polo shirts.
And while restorative justice can work well and keep students out of jail when school staff have adequate training and resources to make it work, some officers and school staff have said the pendulum has swung too far in the Bethel years.
“The kids know there are no consequences, they’re getting away with a lot of what they shouldn’t get away with,” one veteran officer, who noted students have not been penalized for such things as setting fires and assaulting classmates, said in 2021. “I’m for giving people second chances, but at some point, they need to understand they can’t do this in real life.”
But even after he left the city police force, Bethel remained reflexively committed to the core mission of the work: keeping people safe.
Last month, when students walked out of Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School in protest of the school’s founder announcing its closure, hundreds of teenagers crossed North Broad Street to stand on the steps of district headquarters to share their frustration.
District officials, including Bethel, heard them out, then encouraged them to go back to class. Some headed for the subway and home, but most agreed to return to school.
Bethel, concerned about their well-being on the busy road where cars whizzed by, walked them across Broad Street himself.