Officials look for ways to make Lincoln safer at dismissal

A new school is expected to bring an influx of students to the area of Abraham Lincoln High School; neighbors have long complained about issues at dismissal.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Neighbors have for years complained about disturbances arising from Abraham Lincoln High School and Austin Meehan Middle School at dismissal time.

With a new school on the horizon, expected to bring hundreds of additional students to the area, the School District of Philadelphia, 15th Police District and neighborhood leaders are devising new ways to try to keep peace when the bell rings.

Perhaps the most eye-catching idea is to allow school police officers to roam the community. Currently, those officers are restricted to school campuses.

Kevin Bethel, who took over Nov. 1 as the district’s special adviser on school safety, said the proposal is being considered. He oversees the school police department.

“I don’t want to say it’s a definite because I still have to work through a couple of more issues,” said Bethel, who previously served as a deputy police commissioner.

School police officers are not armed and do not have the authority to make arrests on the street. However, Bethel believes they could serve as extra eyes and ears. They already know the students and would be able to identify the ones causing problems and report the behavior to the principal for further consequences.

“We want to manage people’s expectations that my school officers are not going to be out in the community making arrests,” he said. “Everything we do has to be coordinated with the Philadelphia Police Department.”

The goal, Bethel said, is to get everyone home safe. 

In addition, there are ongoing conversations about altering SEPTA’s student transpass system. Kids are supposed to use them only to get to and from school, but critics say the program allows students to meet up with others or go to other high schools to cause problems.

About 70,000 students, including those who go to private and charter schools, receive free passes, Bethel said.

There has also been talk of staggering dismissal times. Lincoln and Meehan already have different let-out times. Bethel said altering dismissal within Lincoln is up to the principal, but it could just prolong the time kids congregate in the area surrounding the school. 

Bethel is quick to say that Lincoln students shouldn’t be labeled. He and Capt. John Walker, commander of the 15th District, both said the vast majority have no interest in getting involved in fights or other negative behavior. 

Walker told the Times the goal is to get the troublemakers into behavioral health and mentorship programs.

On Jan. 24, Bethel, Walker, Mayfair Civic Association President Donny Smith and elected leaders met to discuss these and other ideas. It was Bethel’s first meeting regarding Lincoln and Meehan.

Establishing a security plan for the Lincoln campus was part of a community benefits agreement reached by the district and civic over the construction of the new school. 

Smith, during the Jan. 27 civic meeting, told residents he thought the session was “very productive.”

“I felt good leaving there that we made a little bit of headway,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we did.” 

Some neighbors are not inclined to be optimistic. One man at the civic meeting said students were recently chucking large pieces of cement and other objects at car windshields in the area of Rhawn Street and Rowland Avenue.

“That’s going to be a death,” said the man, who didn’t want his name used because he said he fears for his safety.

Walker was unaware of any 911 reports or damaged vehicles but said that it could have happened.

Bethel readily admits that there is no solution at this point, but he said he plans to test a number of methods to improve the situation. 

“I can’t guarantee you that me putting a few police officers on the corridor is going to stop the behavior, but it’s just an effort to just see what happens,” he said.

“Are we going to stop all the fights on the corridor? That’s never going to happen,” Bethel added. “But I think we can try to work collectively to try to reduce the level of misbehaving that’s occurring.”

Some students will be arrested, Bethel said, but he firmly believes authorities won’t get anywhere by just rounding up kids and putting them in handcuffs.

“For those that believe that, they’re wrong, and that is not my posture,” he said. “Our goal should not be coming out of the blocks to say we’re going to arrest these kids.”

Neighbors also worry about how the new school will affect the mix. As previously reported by the Times, the district is planning to construct a K-8 school for 1,660 students behind Lincoln in time for the 2021-22 school year. Meehan will be closed and demolished.

Rendering of new K-8 school planned for the area behind Lincoln High School. SOURCE: SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA

Meehan’s enrollment, 662, is far below the new school’s projection. Nearly 2,000 students currently attend Lincoln, according to district data.

Both Bethel and Walker said the influx is a concern.

“It’s going to be a challenge, and it’s why we’ve gotten together earlier to try to look at roadways and transportation before we add another thousand kids to the area,” Walker said. “It could potentially be an overload.”

However, the two believe the situation can be handled, with proper planning and preparation from all stakeholders and from all sides of the issue.

“We’re going to really have to sit down and think through what it’s like when we have such a large concentration of young people in an area who have to disperse and go home,” Bethel said.

“Everybody just has to stay at the table and humble ourselves to know that we don’t have the answer. But if we put our collective will together, we can come up with a solution,” he added.

In the meantime, residents can report concerns to school police at Lincoln by calling 215-400-3300 and choosing option 6. ••