In Pittsburgh, advocates want cops out of schools

Students, parents and education advocates protest police officers in schools on Monday June 22 outside of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Administration Building (Pittsburgh Current photo)

By Mary Niederberger

PITTSBURGH — Get rid of the 22 police officers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and replace them with more counselors, psychologists and social workers. Hire more paraprofessionals to work closely with children and re-envision what school safety should look like.

That’s the strong message sent to the Pittsburgh school board from a coalition of about a dozen advocacy groups via an online petition and individuals who rallied outside of the PPS headquarters on Bellefield Street in Oakland Monday afternoon.

The coalition includes such groups as the Education Law Center, ACLU, Education Rights Network, National Movement for Black Lives and Youth Advocacy Clinic at Duquesne Law School.

But during testimony during the board’s virtual public hearing Monday evening (June 22), there were more speakers who favored keeping school police than those who want to see them gone. The district received testimony from 245 individuals and groups for its monthly public hearing, so it has been divided over two days. It will resume at 3 p.m. today (June 23).

While many of the comments were about the demands to remove police from the schools, there were also a number of comments from people who urged the board to renew the charter of Provident charter school, which serves students with dyslexia.

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Because it was a virtual public hearing, submitted written testimony was read by district administrators. That testimony included comments from current and retired school staff, students, parents and community activists who expressed their opinions on whether school police are helpful or harmful to Pittsburgh students.

The demands outlined in the online petition titled “Cops OUT of Pgh Public Schools” had been presented to the board more than a week ago in the wake of protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

They call for all school police officers to be removed from inside and outside of school buildings and for probation officers also to be removed from schools. Pittsburgh school police are unarmed but have arrest powers and can refer students to the juvenile justice system.

Board president Sylvia Wilson did not respond to requests for comment on the issue so it’s unclear if the board is considering the demands.

The police are members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said she is currently surveying all 3,100 union members on the issue. The union president said the union respects the groups raising the issue and is willing to have conversations with them.

“We know things have to change, but we also know the work of our school police officers and we don’t want them painted with a broad brush. We are ready and willing to have that conversation,” Visgitis-Esposito said in an interview.

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In a prepared statement, the union said: “We welcome the addition of new in-school counseling, de-escalation and mental health resources—but addition by subtraction of our school police is a fool’s errand—a hysterical reaction rather than proactive discussion.Our schools, our teachers and our kids will suffer for it. For their sake, let the conversation BEGIN here, not end here.”

Advocates for removing the police have pointed out that the Pittsburgh district has one of the highest arrest rates in the state and that black youth are arrested or referred to police for charges almost nine times more often than their white peers, with black youth making up 84.4 percent of all arrests and 87 percent of disorderly conduct charges while accounting or 40.4 percent of the youth population.

The petition also asks for an end to what it calls an “open door policy” that allows Pittsburgh police into schools to deal with school-based incidents.

Instead, it wants to see investments in restorative and transformative justice, social-emotional learning and trauma-informed curriculum. It also asks for implicit bias training and disability awareness for all district staff.

Cheryl Kleiman, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center, pointed out that although the district has taken steps toward equity and inclusion it still pushes “students with disabilities, Black students, and especially Black girls out of school and into the hands of police.”

She asked the district to remove school police and commit that any memorandum of understanding with the Pittsburgh Police be limited to “only rare, very serious incidents” and to stop the referrals of students to local law enforcement. The district has worked for more than a year on an MOU with Pittsburgh police but had yet to vote on it.

But a number of parents, staff and students spoke of how safe officers in the buildings made them feel and how they work to develop relationships with students, acting almost as if they are “aunts and uncles” to the youth, as described by Jaida DiRenna, who recently graduated from Brashear High School.

Several speakers spoke of a school police officer who stopped an armed intruder from entering Pittsburgh Capa 6-12 in 2010.

Megan Hutchison, a parent of several students in Pittsburgh schools said the recent protests about police treatment of blacks do not apply to the school officers.

“All of our kids’ lives matter and this (removing officers from schools) would be putting their lives in danger,” Hutchison said, adding that the officers are needed to stop anyone from bringing weapons into the schools.

“We are not going to allow for any possibility of a school shooting here,” she said.

But Alison Paterson, parent of students at Pittsburgh Linden K-5, Obama 6-12 and CAPA 6-12, disagreed. “This spring has forced a reckoning,” she said. Patterson expressed specific concern about the number of black girls arrested by the Pittsburgh school police.

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

The data about the arrests of minority students was also cited by Tiffany Sizemore, assistant professor of clinical legal education at Duquesne University’s School of Law and director of the Youth Advocacy Clinic.

“The data about the negative consequences that school police have on children is not new. The presence of police in schools increases arrests of children. Just one arrest increases the chances that a young person will be rearrested and go deeper into the system. Black and brown children are disproportionately impacted by that increase in arrests,” Sizemore wrote in her testimony.

The board also received a June 19 letter from a group called Make Black Lives Matter in PPS Schools, which consists of more than two dozen community activities, medical professionals and non-profit community groups including the YMCA and the United Way.

The letter states that Pittsburgh refers students to law enforcement at rates higher than 95 percent of other large U.S. cities and that black boys are five times more likely than white boys to be referred to the juvenile justice system by school police and black girls nine times more likely than white girls. It said many of the referrals are for minor offenses

The online petition asks for policies adopted that prevent law enforcement from being used in the schools except when required by state law or when there is an imminent risk of serious physical harm.

Among policies it wants eliminated, are those that involve surveillance, that allow officers to put handcuffs on students under the age of 10. It wants compliance with state and federal disability laws for students and for all ALICE (active shooter drills) training to end.

The petition also asks for an end to school police issuing citations to students and families, which create a financial burden on them.

On Tuesday, superintendent Anthony Hamlet released the following statement to the Current: 

“We know that arrests and suspensions do nothing for students’ social well-being and learning, and we are committed to reducing exclusionary discipline practices among our students.  We also know our school police officers play a vital role in ensuring our students and staff feel safe as they work to protect our school communities from potential outside dangers. We have made significant strides in reducing suspensions, but there is much work to do. I look forward to working on this together with the community and staff.”

Mary Niederberger is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.