Principal proud of Cherry Hill West’s journey, relationship with CHPD

Dr. Kwame Morton

By DR. KWAME MORTON
Cherry Hill High School West Principal
Special to The Sun

George Washington Carver once stated, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” In this, my eighth year as Principal at Cherry Hill School West, I stand proud and humbled by the journey that we have taken in partnership with the Cherry Hill Police Department and Chief William Monaghan as it has been one filled with opportunity and hope for both the West and Cherry Hill communities. This partnership is one of my proudest accomplishments at West and one that I am honored to share with Chief Monaghan.

Last June, as civil protests were rampant throughout the country, CHPD prepared for a student led protest in Cherry Hill. Social media posts indicated that protestors were planning to march to the Cherry Hill Mall. Some posts contained threats of looting and destruction similar to what had occurred less than 10 miles away in Philadelphia. As Chief Monaghan and a collective of law enforcement agencies across Camden County mobilized on the scene, they were prepared for the worst: a potential violent clash. However, Chief Monaghan shared with me that as he began to more closely survey the protestors he recognized several familiar faces. As he approached these young people, he stated that their eyes lit with surprise and excitement as they recognized him as the guy they had met at High School West. They remarked how they had worked with him in the past. It was at that point that the tension subsided and that a sense of calm went over the group.  As he later told me, “It was at that moment that I knew all would go well with the protest.”

This diffusion of the situation was not some “magic” moment; instead it was brought about by a high level of commitment from Chief Monaghan and the officers of the Cherry Hill Police Department. Since 2017, the police department has made a concerted effort to work with students at Cherry Hill High School West. It was my intention and Chief Monaghan’s intention that, through understanding and familiarity, local law enforcement and adolescents (especially children of color) could develop positive relationships that would bridge the gap between the two entities and that this familiarity could positively impact interactions in the community. Consequently, we identified opportunities for Chief Monaghan and the CHPD to become involved in the school’s community. The Run With Us Not From Us initiative allowed CHPD Officers to train with our Cross Country and Track Teams. The Junior Police Club allowed Officers to work with our students several times a week during lunch. Our Broadcasting students worked with the Police Department on public service videos that included one entitled, “Hate Has No Home Here” that was produced in response to violent threats toward the local Jewish Community Center.

While all of these initiatives had positive outcomes for both West students and the police department, the initiative that I am most proud of is the involvement of Chief Monaghan and the CHPD with our Restorative Practices implementation. High School West has undergone immense demographic changes in the past decade while changes in the staff demographic have not proportionately changed in a similar manner. An examination of disciplinary referrals over time revealed disproportionate rates of referrals for children of color. This data aligned with national trends, led to a deep examination and discussion on the impacts of race, gender, and social economic status on student achievement. As a faculty, we explored the School to Prison Pipeline, engaged in research on implicit bias, and cultural proficiency. Most importantly, it was clear that we needed to alter our policies on school wide discipline from one rooted in punitive measures to one rooted in restorative measures. At the same time, the same changes in demographics were impacting policing in the Cherry Hill community and Chief Monaghan was looking at Restorative Justice models to implement within the township. According to Chief Monaghan, “Restorative Justice is about bringing people into right relationships with each other and their community.  When harm is done, our current societal response is to label the wrongdoer and then alienate them from their community. The Cherry Hill Police Department is dedicated to breaking down these barriers and labels.” Cherry Hill High School West and the CHPD worked together to create a program that focused on restorative healing practices for students with disciplinary infractions that included mindfulness, mentoring, activity engagement and psychoeducational classes. The program focused on restorative healing practices that are more holistic in nature and that take into consideration the role that human development and community play in the drivers of youth delinquency.

On the heels of the success of these efforts, Chief Monaghan sought to expand our Restorative Practices work across the entire police department. I am thrilled to report that CHPD was recently awarded a $47K grant to implement a Restorative Practices program for youth offenders in the community. The grant will be used to create diversionary restorative justice programs for first time juvenile offenders in the community. These programs are rooted in equity and aim to reduce the over representation of people of color in the justice system. These juveniles will be provided with counseling, mentorship, support and have the opportunity for mistakes to be expunged from their record.

I am humbled to know that efforts that we began at High School West have transitioned into a philosophy on policing that I believe represents a model to foster better, more equitable relationships with the police and those whom they are called to serve and that can serve as a model for all communities for years to come. The expansion of our school’s vision into the community leaves me with much optimism and the hope for a better tomorrow!