Philadelphia Youth Diversion Program Works to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Punitive discipline methods in schools – such as “zero-tolerance” policies – have historically affected students of color at disproportionate rates. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that Black students represent 31% of school-related arrests. Further, as a result of the expansion of mandatory expulsion policies for gun offenses to all states in the passing of the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994, students of color have proven to have greater negative implications including higher suspension rates and arrests for minor offenses. As such, recent advocacy initiatives have been calling for school districts and police departments to reevaluate the way in which schools act in disciplining students to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon – which excessively exposes youth to the criminal justice system.

Source: ACLU

One way to do this is by providing alternative methods of discipline which include diversionary options.

According to, “research has shown that many youth in the juvenile justice system are there for relatively minor offenses, have significant mental health issues, and end up in out-of-home placement or on probation by default.” Thus, diversion programs act as, “alternatives to initial or continued formal processing of youth in the juvenile delinquency system.”

The development of school diversion programs has proven to be a transformative approach to policing in schools. The Philadelphia School District is one example of how when implemented properly, diversion programs can work to transform the lives of students as well as the system.  

Highlighting this critical work, the Black Girls Equity Alliance (BGEA) held one of its Juvenile Justice workgroups which focused on “Exploring and Expanding Diversion Options in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County,” – part of a crucial initiative to transform how schools in the Greater Pittsburgh Area can begin to work to change their exclusionary discipline practices.

Speaker Kevin Bethel, Advisor and Chief of School Safety in Philadelphia School District, discussed ways in which he has been able to work to reverse the “zero tolerance” policies in Philadelphia schools through implementation of a diversion program he helped to initiate in 2014.

After spending years primarily responsible for ensuring the arrests of students in schools, Chief Bethel explained he realized how he had lost the ability to empathize with students and recognized a change needed to occur.

“Knowing what you know now, think about what you would’ve been arrested for as a kid,” he began. “Look at where you are now. What are we doing to children? We stop empathizing with the people we serve,” he explained.

In partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department, Department of Human Services and other entities, the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program works to divert all first-time offending youth who commit qualifying, low-level offenses on school property from arrest and into community-based prevention services. As ongoing evaluation persists, data ultimately reflect the positive outcomes in its early stages including a 54% decrease in student arrests in its first year, and a 64% decrease in arrests in its second year.

With students being diverted to Intensive Prevention Services (IPS) like mentoring, academic support, victim-offender conferencing, etc., students are provided alternate opportunities for counseling and support to promote their future well-being.

As Philadelphia has provided a hopeful model, advocates such as those working within the BGEA within Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have been working towards the development of a similar model of a diversion program to implement within schools in the area. During the workgroup meeting, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) President Nina Esposito-Visgitis, and PFT Vice President, William Hileman discussed ways in which they are working towards creating alternatives to exclusionary practices. Within their recent report, “School Safety and Beyond,” the PFT outlines two priority recommendations including implementing a robust, citywide pre-arrest school police diversion program, and strengthening and expanding restorative justice programs within Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Advocating for alternatives to exclusionary practices such as “zero-tolerance” policies within schools is ultimately advocating to give youth opportunities to heal from trauma and give them an opportunity to make better choices. While diversion programs ensure youth are held accountable for their actions, they work reduce the amount of youth involvement in the justice system – which ultimately leads to negative future outcomes. Additional positive outcomes from diversion programs include:

  • a reduction of premature involvement in the “deep end” of the juvenile delinquency system;
  • a reduction in out-of-home placements, especially for younger children;
  • maintaining youth connectedness and engagement in the community by keeping the youth in his/her environment; and
  • a reduction in cost compared to court processing and/or secure placement.

This transformative work is aiding in eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline and working to ensure children – especially children of color who are primarily impacted – can have educational experience that supports their overall well-being.

To find out ways to join the conversation or learn how to advocate for this cause locally, visit the BGEA’s website. To advocate on a national level, learn more at ACLU.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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