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Activists Call On Pittsburgh Public Schools To Remove Police From All Buildings

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Advocates rally outside the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration building on Monday, July 22. They're calling on the board to remove police from all school buildings on Monday, June 22, 2020.

A coalition of advocacy groups is calling on the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors to remove police officers from school buildings.

An online petition lays out a dozen other demands, including an end to the practice of handcuffing children under 10 years old, increased investment in school psychologists and social workers, and public reporting of all interactions between students and police officers.

Angel Gober of One Pennsylvania clarified that the petition would not remove school security guards, only the uniformed police employed by PPS.

“The primary election [for school board] is coming up in 2021, and if we do not get five votes,” to remove police, we will vote school board directors out, Gober told the crowd.

Advocates rallied in support of the effort outside the district’s administration building in Oakland Monday afternoon, ahead of a virtual public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m.

As the country reckons with police brutality, advocates said it’s time to reimagine school safety.

Jitu Brown, the national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, said racism has infected every part of American life.

“The reason they want cops in schools is because of the lens in which they see Black and brown children,” one of hate and low expectations, instead of compassion, love and accountability, he said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools have some of the highest arrest rates in the state. Ghadah Makoshi of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said school police needlessly criminalize teenage behavior and cause real harm.

“Even the most caring and best-trained police cannot and should not be expected to replace counselors,” she said.

Makoshi noted that Black students are disproportionately cited by officers, fined, or referred to city police.

So many people submitted public comments to Monday night’s virtual hearing that the meeting will continue Tuesday. Many people echoed the call to remove police, while many others rejected the idea as absurd, and asked, rhetorically, if board members were out of their minds.

Executive cabinet member Dr. Ted Dwyer read a statement from Scott Schultz. 

“If you want a mass defection of teachers go ahead with this plan,” wrote Schultz. “Who breaks up the fights, who stops the weapons and drugs from coming in?”

Advocates say an investment in intervention workers, counselors and social workers would better address school needs.

Other groups supporting the call to remove police from Pittsburgh schools include the Women and Girls Foundation, 1Hood Media, the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy and One Pennsylvania.

Two Pittsburgh Public Schools board members plan to introduce such a resolution this month. Directors Devon Taliaferro and Pam Harbin are calling for a phased reduction in the number of officers in schools beginning in 2021.

“It’s too late,” said activist Lorenzo Rulli of the phased approach. “They never should have been there in the first place.”

Rulli said the police presence is harmful to Black and brown children because the only association they have with police is one of fear. That is not conducive to learning, he said.

PPS is already exploring less punitive measures for dealing with disruptive behavior in schools. The district’s efforts at restorative justice reduced suspensions by nearly 20 percent between 2017 and 2019. In 2018, the board rejected a proposal to arm police officers in schools.

Still, according to the ACLU, 84 percent of children between the ages of 10-17 arrested by Pittsburgh police last year were black. Black girls between the ages of 10-12 were thirteen times more likely to be arrested than white girls of the same age.

As Monday’s demonstration wound down, attendees were reminded that school board members are elected, district attorneys are elected, and judges are elected. “If they’re messing up, vote [them] out,” said the event’s emcee to loud applause. 

The DJ began to play the 1995 hit, “This Is How We Do It,” by Montell Jordan.