Federal panel reevaluating its poor rating of the school district’s arrest diversion program

School officials object the evaluation, citing significantly reduced recidivism since 2014

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A federal panel that labeled an arrest diversion program for Philadelphia students as ineffective is taking a second look at its evaluation following sharp objections from the district.

CrimeSolutions, a project of the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), last month published a report that concluded the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program had “no effects” on recidivism. CrimeSolutions evaluates criminal justice programs for their effectiveness, giving them one of three ratings: effective, promising or no effects.

“Though treatment group youths were statistically significantly less likely to be suspended postincident, there were no statistically significant differences between treatment and control group youths in recidivism, number of recidivism arrests, and child welfare placement,” the NIJ said in a statement about Philadelphia’s program.

The Philadelphia Police Department and the school district created the arrest diversion program in 2014 in response to zero-tolerance policies that introduced a disproportionate number of Black and Latino students to the criminal justice system, said district Safety Chief Kevin Bethel.

“Actually putting a child in a cellblock for six hours because they came into school with mace, because it was defined as a weapon,” Bethel described. The program allows students who are facing arrest for first-time low-level offenses to choose counseling instead.

“One of our primary goals is to reduce the number of arrests that were in the school, provide services for those young people and work to address the disparities,” he said.

Student arrests dropped from 1,580 in 2014 to 175 last year, Bethel noted. Suspensions fell sharply, and students in the program were not as likely to be arrested, said Drexel University psychology professor Naomi Goldstein, who has studied the diversion program extensively.

“Diverted youth were significantly less likely to be arrested in the five years following their school-based incident,” Goldstein said. “Arrested youth were 1.4 times more likely than diverted youth to have a subsequent arrest in the five years following the school-based incident.

“I’ve looked at a lot of programs over the years, both ones I’ve evaluated and once I’ve seen across the country, and I’ve just never seen a program with this kind of positive impact.”

The CrimeSolutions “no effects” rating angered Bethel.

“People just read the title, right? They don’t even read the substance of it. That it’s ineffective,” he fumed. “And you send that across the nation. Like, what are you saying? Dr. Goldstein has been on the ground … with us in our space, with our people every day, and then you turn around and you smack us in the face as if it doesn’t mean anything.”

He believes the researchers should have reached out to the program’s leads — particularly, Goldstein — to corroborate their findings.

“It’s really unfair,” Bethel said. “It sends a negative message to the men and women, particularly in the Philadelphia Police Department, my staff and others, who worked so hard over the last eight years to change the narrative about what we’re doing.”

CrimeSolutions’ website lists the Philadelphia program’s “no effects” rating as “under appeal.” Bethel said the district intends to continue the diversion program and plans to expand the list of eligible offenses, regardless of the ultimate CrimeSolutions rating.

“You can’t beat a teacher or rob a student or do some of those egregious activities,” Bethel said. “But we are at a place that really leads into our restorative work. And the diversion program is the bedrock of our restorative pillar as we work with our young people.”