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Two PPS Board Directors Want To Reduce School Police And Rethink Safety

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools board members Devon Taliaferro and Pam Harbin say it’s time for the district to be police-free.

Taliaferro and Harbin will introduce a resolution to the full board this month that will call for monitoring of regular arrest, citation and referral data; a community conversation on re-thinking school safety; and a phased reduction in the district’s 22-officer force beginning in 2021. Taliaferro and Harbin will seek community input with a goal of voting on the resolution in August.

The two say that black and brown students and students with disabilities are at risk with school police in their buildings because they are disproportionately policed by both district and city officers.

“This is another system that is based on institutional racism,” Harbin said. “And we have the power right now to say that we're going to do something transformational to change that system.”

According to the ACLU, nearly 85 percent of students arrested last year by city police officers were black; black students make up 52 percent of the district’s 23,000 students. The administration has for months been working on a memorandum of understanding outlining its relationship with the City of Pittsburgh police department, which is required by law.  

Harbin and Taliaferro haven’t determined the number of positions they will propose to eliminate or by when. They are also considering changing the duties and responsibilities of officers so that they aren’t patrolling hallways, bathrooms and stairwells as they are now.

The district also employs 80 school safety personnel, who district officials often refer to as security guards. They do not have arresting authority, but are assigned to buildings to monitor metal detectors and diffuse fights.  

Harbin and Taliaferro’s resolution won’t call for reducing the security guards. They say that should be part of the community conversation and an administrative decision.

“I think what the board is trying to say in a resolution… is that we will have a policy in our district that doesn't include hiring people that can arrest students,” Harbin said. “And then the rest of it, you should figure out how to do safety in a different way.”

The district’s 2020 budget allocated $7.2 million to school safety. Ninety-eight percent of that goes to salaries and benefits.

The Movement

For years education advocates have criticized districts for enabling what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline” in which students are more likely to be arrested later in life if they were suspended or arrested while in school. The pipeline largely impacts black and brown students and students with disabilities.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, districts across the country have severed contracts with local police departments. If PPS makes changes, they will look differently because the district has an in-house police force.

Credit Pittsburgh Public Schools
Pittsburgh Public Schools
School board director Pam Harbin represents District 4.

Harbin co-founded the group Education Rights Network, a campaign of the advocacy group One PA. Before she was a board member, she helped lead campaigns called “solutions, not suspensions” and “counselors, not cops.”

“I really do think now is the time that we can create a system of school safety that keeps everybody safe without policing. We've been doing reform for way too long and it's not working. And now I think we just must have the courage to just demand that we have police free schools,” she said.

Last week, Education Rights Network announced it was joining a coalition of 10 local, state and national social justice groups demanding the district remove police from buildings, end all active-shooter drills, invest in restorative practice and implicit bias training, among many other demands.

“It is time to take back our schools from the hands of the police, and to place our students in the loving palms of community driven and culturally informed processes,” said Paulette Foster, co-founder of Education Rights Network, in a statement.

Earlier this month, a letter from 55 black women asking the board to let Superintendent Anthony Hamlet's contract expire at the end of the next school year listed "black students' high referral rate to the police" as one area where they sam Hamlet has not succeeded in providing safe and healthy school environments. 

Both Harbin and Taliaferro were elected in May 2019. Taliaferro is the chair of the board’s safety and operations committee and says her role is to make sure children are educated and safe. As a black woman, Taliaferro referred to her own experience with police starting at a young age.

Credit Provided / Pittsburgh Public Schools
Pittsburgh Public Schools
Board director Devon Taliaferro represents district 2.

“I think there was always this fear, but not as deeply [felt] until you see that... a child was murdered or a black man was murdered [by police]. And then it kind of puts it in perspective that that could be me,” she said.

She wants to re-prioritize funding to address the trauma that students come to buildings with “instead of criminalizing them.” Taliaferro wants the district to focus more of its attention and resources on restorative practice. It received a grant from the Department of Justice in 2014  to find the root cause of negative student behavior rather than use more punitive measures like suspensions.

“[Then] there would be no need or not as many need for arrests for simple things that could have been just trauma and experiences,” Taliaferro said.

She said that will be especially important whenever students return to buildings after learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The level of trauma that they're going to have is going to be even more than what they were going through before. Do we have the structures in place to be able to support those students? Are we going to go increase more arrests and citations when we could have been actually helping them?” she said.

Who Is Being Policed?

Pittsburgh Public Schools officers don’t carry guns, though they asked to be armed in 2018. The board denied that request. At the time PPS Police Chief George Brown said that the role of school police was to protect students from outside threats. Board members said district officers could do that without weapons and rely on City of Pittsburgh Police for threats in the vicinity of schools. The PPS officers do have arresting authority, which Harbin says is the most problematic part of their role.

The force was established in 1997 and officers are represented by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the union that represents teachers and paraprofessionals. PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said she is speaking with officers this week and won’t have a comment until then.

Superintendent Hamlet said he wants to reduce the number of arrests in schools.  

“As adults we need to come up with appropriate measures and appropriate ways to really deal with some of the things our kids are dealing with that move them to do illegal activity or get arrested for whatever reason, out of anger or combativeness, whatever it may be. We need to find ways to support them so they don’t get into those situations,” he said.

He says he supports creating a task force to recommend what the district should do next. He says he’s meeting with the police chief this week.

While Harbin says the number of arrests in the district have gone down during Hamlet’s tenure, black students are disproportionately arrested. Part of the problem, though, is that the board is not regularly given arrest, citation and referral data.

Harbin said 23 percent of arrests from August 2019 to March 2020 were for offenses that under state law require mandatory police involvement. Those charges include weapons, harassment and terroristic threat. A majority of offenses, she said, are for tobacco, underage alcohol, and disorderly conduct, which she says is subjective.

Harbin says she expects the conversation with board members to be a positive one. The two have told the other 7 members that they plan to introduce a resolution. For the most part, they think they’ll have the board’s support. They said the hard part will be the move to eliminate staff. But, Harbin said she is willing to take on the fight.

“There is going to be a lot of opposition,” she said. “I have the courage to say that, you know, this is the way this is, this is possible and this needs to happen.”