Across the United States, arrest rates for young people under age 18 have been declining for decades. However, the proportion of youth arrests associated with school incidents has increased.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, K–12 schools referred nearly 230,000 students to law enforcement during the school year that began in 2017. These referrals and the 54,321 reported school-based arrests that same year were mostly for minor misbehavior like marijuana possession, as opposed to more serious offenses like bringing a gun to school.

School-based arrests are one part of the school-to-prison pipeline, through which students—especially Black and Latine students and those with disabilities—are pushed out of their schools and into the legal system.

Getting caught up in the legal system has been linked to negative healthsocial, and academic outcomes, as well as increased risk for future arrest.

Given these negative consequences, public agencies in states like ConnecticutNew York, and Pennsylvania have looked for ways to arrest fewer young people in schools. Philadelphia, in particular, has pioneered a successful effort to divert youth from the legal system.

In Philadelphia, police department leaders recognized that the city’s school district was its largest source of referrals for youth arrests. To address this issue, then–Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel developed and implemented a school-based, pre-arrest diversion initiative in partnership with the school district and the city’s department of human services. The program is called the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program, and it officially launched in May 2014.

Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker named Bethel as her new police commissioner on Nov. 22, 2023.

Since the diversion program began, when police are called to schools in the city for offenses like marijuana possession or disorderly conduct, they cannot arrest the student involved if that student has no pending court case or history of adjudication. In juvenile court, an adjudication is similar to a conviction in criminal court.

Instead of being arrested, the diverted student remains in school, and school personnel decide how to respond to their behavior. For example, they might speak with the student, schedule a meeting with a parent, or suspend the student.

A social worker from the city also contacts the student’s family to arrange a home visit, where they assess youth and family needs. Then, the social worker makes referrals to no-cost community-based services. The student and their family choose whether to attend.

Our team—the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab at Drexel University—evaluated the effectiveness of the diversion program as independent researchers not affiliated with the police department or school district. We published four research articles describing various ways the diversion program affected students, schools, and costs to the city.

Read the full article about school-to-prison pipeline by Amanda Nemoyer and Naomi Goldstein at YES!Magazine .