By KYW community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A new program working to end what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline” in the city of Philadelphia is already showing positive results.
In its first year, the program — led by the Philadelphia Police Department in a partnership with the school district, the city’s Department of Human Services, and other agencies — has cut the number of child arrests in half.
During the 2013-14 school year, nearly 1,600 children, some as young as age ten, were arrested for serious violations of school district policy. Their offenses ranged from fighting to bringing weapons or drugs to school.
But last May, the Philadelphia School Diversion Program got started.
“We have over 800 fewer schoolkids who have been arrested in the school district — we are down 55 percent,” notes Kevin Bethel, the Philadelphia deputy police commissioner who developed the program.
“Prior to our program, a ten-year-old who could have been bullied the day before and grabbed a small knife and brought it to school for protection would have been arrested, fingerprinted, photographed, and oftentimes held in the cell block for six hours waiting for his parents,” Bethel says.
But under the new program, kids are “diverted” — which means no arrest, no handcuffs, no fingerprints, mug shots or jail time.
“Why put a child through that type of trauma?” Bethel asks.
Instead, children with no prior juvenile record are enrolled in intervention services such as counseling, leadership training, and/or other programs administered by the Department of Human Services.
“Sometimes good children get into bad situations,” admits Jovon Scere, a parent. Last September her daughter Jahnira, then 12 years old, made a big mistake: she brought a flashlight-sized stun gun that belonged to her mother onto the school bus.
“I took it out of my bookbag and showed it to people and they started tasing each other,” recalls Jahnira Scere-Jones, now 13.
Four kids were hurt in that incident, and the seventh-grader found herself on the fast track to expulsion and arrest.
But instead of getting locked up, Jahnira was given the opportunity to grow up. She was enrolled in leadership training and given some additional life skills.
Now, nine months later, she’s at a new school and her once-failing grades are As, Bs, and Cs.
“I learned, don’t follow after nobody and to just be myself,” she says. “And don’t touch nothing that’s not mine.”
Her mother says the program has made a big difference.
“She’s more focused, to me she works even harder, she even joined track,” says Jovon Scere of her daughter.
And Jahnira’s transformation has inspired her mother to help others. She founded the organization “Dare to Care,” where she helps other children by giving them love.
“I always say, ‘Become a blessing to bless others,’ and that’s what I have become,”