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Policing in Kensington: ‘We cannot escape that feeling — not even in our schools’

Editor’s note: This opinion piece was written by Rebecca M. Baret, who is a Philadelphia public school student, Kensington resident, and Youth United for Change member.

My name is Rebecca, and I’ve lived in Kensington for as long as I can remember. Last October, I joined an organization called Youth United for Change (YUC), which helps young people in Kensington and all over Philly fight for school funding that supports students. YUC communicates with community members about what it actually means to be safe and how we can create a safer community. 

At YUC, safe means:

Supportive of community stability.

Accessible to affordable resources that are accountable to us.

Fully funded and fulfilling places to live, and

Effective in addressing problems with empathy and empowers the community to do so, together. 

Kensington is known by some people as the “Badlands” of Philly. As a member of this community, I think that it’s unfair that Kensington is perceived that way. In my opinion, Kensington is only as good as its residents. If we can’t get the resources we need for our community to thrive, then how can we better it?

By simply walking down the street, we are exposed to all types of crime, violence, and people who use drugs. We are also exposed to the police during their shifts in our neighborhood. When living in Kensington, there is no escape from seeing the police on every street. Police officers in cars, on bikes, and sometimes on horses are standing watch in our community. We are forced to feel imprisoned in our own homes because of this. We cannot escape that feeling— not even in our schools.

School policing in Philadelphia has been, for a very long time, a touchy subject for students and community members. We understand that the police are there to deter possible crimes; but students like me, who live in Kensington, are mislabeled and treated like criminals because we live in a low-income, working class neighborhood. We often are excessively targeted by policing — both in and out of school — which doesn’t give us the support we need and creates an environment where students feel unsafe, unprotected, and unheard. On top of this, police in our schools can often be found lingering and not being helpful when they are needed. This reminds me of situations when it takes police officers half an hour or more to respond to a call in our neighborhood.

The experiences that we encounter living in Kensington are reflected in what we do in our schools. For example, someone who has seen violence first-hand may act out in school, someone whose parent is not involved in their life may disrespect authority figures, and someone who doesn’t have enough food may steal to get something to eat. Instead of providing us with the resources we need to overcome these obstacles, our communities and schools use the police as a band-aid solution and never address the root of the problem. 

Although some people categorize Kensington as a “lost cause,” the reality is that it has been set up that way by a cycle of poverty that makes low-income, working class people fail or achieve the bare minimum level of success. At YUC, we believe that in order to correct these inherent issues and address the historic deprivation that causes them, we must start by changing the idea that the only corrective action is policing. Our communities should be able to succeed by receiving resources that actually support people and help them reach their fullest potential instead of trying to beat the odds without any real support.  

In order to do so, schools must be fully funded places that give students the resources they need to make safe choices in their lives. This could be accomplished by reallocating the policing budget to where it is truly needed and where it will count. Training for teachers and staff, an increase of school psychologists and social workers, and the integration of peer support groups would all help students more than policing. Students should have the opportunity to meet in groups with their peers and trained mediators to work through any issues that may arise. At YUC, we believe that no matter who you are or where you come from, everyone deserves communities and schools that are SAFE.

Kensington has always been unique, and the neighborhood embraces cohesiveness. Truth be told, the people of Kensington work together, and we have taken it upon ourselves to settle disputes because we have found that the police are untrustworthy and unreliable. But this is not enough. Working alone and without resources is unfair to people in the neighborhood. The Kensington community wants changes that don’t make us feel imprisoned in our own homes or overpoliced in our schools. For these changes to happen, we need funding and resources that will help us lift up our community and rebuild it into one that we deserve. 

Editors: Claire Wolters, Zari Tarazona / Designer: Henry Savage / Translator: N/A