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ACLU finds Allegheny County students are arrested more often than anywhere else in Pennsylvania

Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA

Students at school districts across Allegheny County encounter the juvenile and criminal justice systems more often than their peers in the rest of Pennsylvania, according to a new report. The county’s Black students were much more likely to be arrested than white students, even in districts where the Black student population was less than 10%.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, student arrests are underreported by districts, and data about arrests varies depending on where you look.

“The data shortcomings raise serious concerns about whether these students are receiving the protections from discrimination guaranteed by law,” said Harold Jordan, a co-author of the report and the nationwide education equity coordinator for the ACLU. “We need a full accounting of student-police interactions in Allegheny County.”

In Allegheny County, student arrests were underreported by 83%, according to Ghadah Makoshi, a community advocate with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the study’s co-author.

For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools — the county’s largest district — reported zero student arrests and 188 police investigations to the state for the 2017-2018 school year. But the report found evidence of 499 school-related arrests during the same period, using county court data and Right-to-Know requests.

High arrest rates for Black youth

The ACLU report found that PPS students were more than three times as likely to be arrested compared to students at other districts in Allegheny County. But Black students were arrested at more than four times the rate of white students in the district. A spokesperson for Pittsburgh Public Schools did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Last year, the district’s school board approved an independent evaluation of arrest data and approved the creation of a task force to examine how police interact with students. It’s not clear whether the task force has been assembled and what new steps the district has taken to change how often police interact with students.

South Allegheny School District had the largest gap in the county: an 80-point difference between the arrest rates of Black and white students. The district also had the highest overall arrest rate of Black students, with 1 out of every 13 Black students arrested.

Lisa Duval, the district’s superintendent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At Baldwin-Whitehall School District, 1 out of every 18 Black students was arrested, compared to 1 out of 288 white students. The report also found large gaps between Black and white students at Moon, West Jefferson Hills, North Hills and elsewhere in the county.

Black girls were the only demographic for which most juvenile arrests were school-related, according to the report.

“It’s often for things like disorderly conduct," said Makoshi, which she claims might not always accurately describe the offense.

What’s the charge?

The report cites implicit racial bias and overcharging as two causes for the disparity among arrest rates and the overall high number of arrest rates in general. The report's authors say "overcharging" can be, for example, when a Black student is charged with rioting and disorderly conduct or simple assault in what the report claims “to be simple fights with no injuries.”

Similar charges were not found when looking at the arrests of white students.

The report found minor offenses, such as simple assault (24.2%) and drug charges (17.9%), accounted for nearly half of all school-related arrests in Allegheny County. About 90% of drug charges students faced were for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

“When students are arrested for minor, often typical adolescent behavior, it negatively impacts their ability to succeed in school,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Students are being unnecessarily pushed into the justice system rather than having their needs addressed by supportive adults who are trained to work with adolescents, which is a far better investment of public resources.”

The ACLU found that students could receive simple assault charges for actions like throwing items that didn't hit anyone and making a threatening motion toward another student as if to hit them. A felony riot charge could be applied to a student who does not immediately stop fighting when an adult asks them to, according to the report.

In almost every case of an arrest of a Black student, a charge of disorderly conduct was added, according to Makoshi. That phenomenon was not observed in the arrest data of white students.

ACLU calls for prevention programs

The report also makes suggestions for districts to decrease their rate of arrests, such as eliminating police officer assignments in school districts. Schools with police in the building tend to involve law enforcement in infractions that districts without assigned officers would not, the report found.

Makoshi said programs that intervene before a student faces charges can also reduce the rate of arrests in Allegheny County schools. One such program in Philadelphia helped to reduce student arrest rates by more than 50% in its first year and by 84% after the program’s fifth year.

The program reversed “zero tolerance” discipline strategies, which saw students arrested for minor violations and had a disproportionate impact on Black students similar to Allegheny County. Instead, it diverts first-time offending youth to community programs and prevention services.

The ACLU also recommends prohibiting summary citations at school, which often accompany punishment already given by the district, according to the report. “These infractions are by definition minor, and they would not ordinarily justify an arrest,” the report reads. As a result, “young people get a record in the criminal justice system, which can negatively impact their future.”

But Makoshi stresses the key to reducing arrests is maintaining better data about how many students get arrested each year and why. That way, districts can better track their progress.

“We have this false sense of how schools are doing and then [when] we look at the data, we realize, ‘Oh! We have a huge problem,’” she said. “If we don’t really know what the problem is, how can we fix it?”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.