Martin Luther King Day last week provided the impetus for a unique event examining juvenile justice issues primarily related to the Cheltenham public schools. Sponsored by Arcadia University and the Cheltenham Area Branch of the NAACP in conjunction with the Montgomery County Racial Justice Improvement Project and the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the program featured a panel discussion and community forum on a timely issue.
The format of the evening was somewhat out of the ordinary, although effective. The meeting at Arcadia University’s Commons Great Room led off with an energizing group-sing-along of both The Star Spangled Banner and the Negro National Anthem (the latter led by Cheltenham High alum Alyssa Davis). It made me wonder why more events featuring group participation don’t begin in song, which can spur a sense of solidarity, regardless of the theme of a meeting. And, to my mind, it sure beats the desultory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, although they managed to get that one in, too. Plus, the panel discussion came across more as a series of pop-up presentations by community leaders and public officials, but still well-organized and informative.
Setting the tone for the program, the main event began with a short film of clips of young black males talking candidly about how their social identity affects growing up in this country. One said he sometimes counts the number of times he sees white women in a store clutch their bags as he walks by. Another recalled walking with a white female fellow-student and being more than puzzled when she insisted on crossing the street to avoid “those black boys” approaching. One subject recalled his father telling him not to “live in fear,” but to be careful when it comes to interactions with police, while another, putting it far more starkly, asked, “How can I not be afraid when I feel I’m being hunted?” It’s simply “part of being a person of color in America” was the way a student in the film summed it up.
Attorney Angela Bell, one of two moderators, the other being District Court Judge Christopher Cerski, noted that Montgomery County arrests black juveniles at ten times the rate of whites. She readily conceded “there’s not a simple answer; it’s not just about race. There are layers to this.” Bell added that if such problems are to be addressed, people “have to be able to talk about some stuff that is uncomfortable.”
On the topic of school discipline, some recent CHS graduates had differing views, one noting that black males tend to see measures taken as too stiff and “over the top,” while another contended that responses to student fighting were insufficient and should result in arrests based on criminal conduct. At that point, Cheltenham Schools Superintendent Wagner Marseille weighed in, pointing out that unpacking the context of a dispute, even one that turns violent, is key to understanding it and responding appropriately. He emphasized his responsibility to protect large numbers of students and the need at times for acting “with a soft hand and sometimes an iron glove.”
Bell, who works as a community mobilizer for Cheltenham Communities That Care, referenced the “school-to-prison pipeline” problem, which many youth advocates see as practices that needlessly push schoolchildren, especially those at greatest risk, out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. “We’re panicked as a country,” she asserted, noting her discomfort with the “new norm” of the regular presence of police in schools. The rise in school-based arrests, mostly for non-violent offenses such as disruptive behavior, is thought to be influenced by closer attention to schools by police.
“How do we balance the need for safety and discipline with the consequence of the school-to-prison pipeline?” asked Bell. She suggested establishing Youth Court programs in schools, which, she said, have a track record of success in Norristown and Philadelphia for dealing with problem students more sensitively and effectively.
Supervising Attorney Jim Price of the Montgomery County DA’s Juvenile Unit said the school-to-prison pipeline was “real.” He maintained that “zero tolerance” policies in schools can lead to overreactions to security risks. Price mentioned the extreme case of an agitated student threatening to “shoot up the school” who might “just be having a bad day” and poses little risk to others. He noted the importance of a “restorative justice” approach for working with troubled kids, employing the criminal justice system only as a last resort.
Officer Jackie Hinchee is a Cheltenham police officer who knows her way around the public schools as well as two local private schools, Bishop McDeavitt High and Wyncote Academy, where she is a familiar presence. Hinchee is the school liaison officer for the Cheltenham Police Department and has been at it for 10 years now. Yes, she carries a firearm, but “it’s not a scary thing,” she says. Assuming her reputation as a friend and ally of students, parents and staff matches the realities of her work, she seems to have made her case. Recent CHS grad Alyssa Davis agreed, saying that if armed officers who were unfamiliar to the school community were constantly in and out, that could be a problem. “But everyone knows who she is and why she’s there.” Stacy Williams, president of the Cheltenham African American Alliance, noted that her daughter sees Hinchee as a friend.
In a subsequent interview, Hinchee said she cultivates relationships with students and staff. “Just being seen” and approachable is vital. Information flows her way that may help defuse a tense situation at school or put together the puzzle of a troubled adolescent. “My true title of being a ‘liasison’ is correct. I take information from our end to the school and visa versa back to us (the police). It just works. That line of communication is a necessity and it’s really proven in the last couple of years to help everybody involved.”
Hinchee, too, is concerned about labeling the misguided behavior of students as criminal acts. She said she emphasizes in her job talking to students, parents and school administrators “to find out what’s going on with a kid. The last thing I want to do is take a kid out in cuffs.”
Dr. Marseille, who admitted to a less than positive experience with law enforcement as a Haitian youth growing up in the Princeton area, said “my last resort” is calling the police to respond to an incident. “Once I call, I’ve fundamentally failed.” The Cheltenham superintendent said “young black men in America are the most endangered for stress and depression.” Even fourth to sixth graders may come to school “so volatile and angry.” His role, he said, is “to get to the root cause,” adding, “a lot of it is about what’s happening outside (of school).”
Marseille then turned more upbeat. “A good teacher and a good system trumps all of those things – drugs, poverty, wealth. We have to make sure that good teachers are in every single classroom.” He contended that all young men want to be successful and schools have to be a “safe place” where they can feel valued, respected, feel they’re contributing,” where “experiences” are created that offer a path beyond what they can imagine. Marseille called for more “culturally competent” guidance and mental health counselors for students – “to talk and deescalate.”
Anthony Luker, Congressman Brendan Boyle’s district director, who formerly worked in the Philadelphia schools as a disciplinary administrator, also emphasized the importance of building relationships with students. He found that even “one-minute interviews” with each of 426 students in one school improved his ability to reach them over time. His advice to teachers was “to own your own classroom,” making it clear who is in charge, in order to create a successful climate for learning.
After echoing a number of points made by prior speakers, state Sen. Art Haywood (D-4th District) did not mince words. The Cheltenham resident, whose wife Julie is on the school board, called for leadership changes at Cheltenham High School, a view he had expressed at a recent board meeting. He framed the issue as “a compelling need” and asked if there were any school staff responsible for discipline in attendance at the event. There were no responses. Both Haywoods were parent activists in the Cheltenham schools prior to gaining elective office.
State Rep. Steve McCarter (D-154th District), a retired teacher after 35 years in the classroom, also emphasized the centrality of teachers in establishing a successful learning environment. He noted that school climate and disciplinary issues are team-oriented and should not be left to an outside administrator. He endorsed the concept of a 30-minute “cool down” period prior to debriefing an incident of student disruption.
Cheltenham Deputy Police Chief John Frye underscored the department’s track record in community relations. He said Officer Stop Reports indicate over three years one formal complaint – ultimately withdrawn – and no complaints of racial profiling. Frye pointed to the department’s recently introduced eight-hour training program on management of aggressive behavior, which is mandatory for all officers. The training design focuses on deescalation techniques, including verbal cues, body language and empathetic listening as well as recognition of signs of high stress that can lead to aggression.
Judge Cerski summed up, noting that the players involved in the juvenile justice system want to make a difference and are willing to make changes within legal and institutional parameters.
The MLK Day program honored the memory of Harvey Crudup, the longtime president of the Cheltenham Area NAACP and retired deputy commissioner of operations of the Philadelphia Police Department. He passed away last September.