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ACLU, parents call on Pittsburgh Public Schools to address racial disparities in discipline

 A circular poster that reads "caps not cuffs" is propped on the ground.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Advocates with the Education Rights Network and 412 Justice rally outside the PPS administrative offices in Oakland, calling on the district to be more transparent about student interactions with police.

Local education advocates and parents are calling on Pittsburgh Public Schools to end the use of summary citations as a form of student discipline.

The offenses, often called non-traffic citations, are the most minor type of criminal offense in Pennsylvania and often apply to low-level infractions, like disorderly conduct.

Recipients are ordered to appear before a magisterial district judge, where they are typically assessed fines. Failure to pay results in a referral to juvenile court.

“You're introducing the juvenile justice system to these children who may have just had an argument or a fight,” said Paulette Foster, co-founder of the Education Rights Network.

According to recent data obtained by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, of the 90 students who received summary citations during the 2021-2022 school year, 89% were levied on the district’s Black students.

Just 53% of the district’s 20,000 students, meanwhile, are Black.

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The PPS school board’s policy committee has recommended the board place a moratorium on the use of summary citations and take several months to reevaluate the procedure. As of Monday evening, however, the measure had not been included on the agenda for the board’s Wednesday legislative session.

In a letter to PPS Superintendent Wayne Walters and administration, the ACLU and a coalition of local leaders urged the district to consider the committee’s recommendation.

ACLU policy strategist Ghadah Makoshi reiterated that call to action Monday night during the PPS board’s monthly public hearing.

“Not a single person has said kids shouldn't have appropriate consequences. But a consequence is different than giving a child a permanent record that prevents them from going to college or gaining employment,” Makoshi said.

Racial disparities in citation issuances persist

PPS’ code of conduct requires district staff to report students to school police officers when they commit several infractions, such as vandalism on school or private property, sexual harassment or inciting a disturbance or melee.

School police then reserve the discretion to issue summary citations, though district policy notes that before consulting with school police about an incident, administrators must consider the seriousness of the situation, the school’s ability to defuse the situation, and whether the student has a disability, among other factors.

Still, racial disparities among the students receiving citations have continued to persist over the last several years. One out of every 70 Black students enrolled in PPS was issued a summary citation, according to the letter, compared to one in every 400 white students.

And a breakdown of the last year’s citations highlighted that Black girls were also disproportionately represented, accounting for 46% of all write-ups. At the same time, only four white students — and just one female —received citations districtwide.

“Decades of research on school discipline has shown that when discretion is involved — such as whether to ticket someone for disorderly conduct for being disruptive or profane — students of color are disciplined more severely,” the ACLU wrote.

In addition to the citation moratorium, the civil rights organization called on the school board to provide a more narrow and specific definition for infractions outlined in the district’s code of conduct. They say, that way, families, teachers and law enforcement have a better understanding of when t to use it.

Kate Lovelace, an attorney with Duquesne Law School Youth Advocacy Clinic, said the issuance of a citation goes on to affect entire families. To attend court with their student, parents take time off work and often require childcare.

“And even when their kids graduate from high school, they're still paying truancy fines,” said Lovelace, who is also the Democratic nominee for Allegheny County Magisterial District Court judge.

Citations are also sent by mail. Foster said some parents may fail to open the letter in time, resulting in a bench warrant.

“Now they’re dealing with a whole slew of legal bills and issues that, at the end of the day, this student could have said, ‘I'm sorry,’” she added.

Foster said schools should instead employ restorative practices that mediate conflict between students without legal consequence.

“Because everything is not a criminal offense. It's adolescent behaviors,” she continued. “It's situations that could have been taken care of if someone would have taken the time to actually speak, take the time to bring the people together to have that healing piece.”

Schools must protect students from discrimination, even in discipline

In addition to issuing the moratorium, advocates with the Education Rights Network and 412 Justice are calling on PPS to invest in more culturally-responsive approaches to student discipline, as well as full transparency on student interactions with police.

The groups also recommend the school board create a process that convenes multiple student-support teams before issuing a summary citation to ensure consistency and equity in discipline across the district.

Students are protected from unlawful discrimination under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Last year, the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found a California school district in violation of the law when it disciplined African American students more frequently and more harshly than similarly-situated white students.

The OCR determined that even when a district contracts with another entity to carry out discipline, schools “cannot divest themselves of responsibility for the nondiscriminatory administration of school safety and student discipline by relying on school resource officers [or] school district police officers,” per its settlement with the Victor Valley Union High School District.

The ACLU called the “pattern of disparities within PPS with regard to out of school suspension, arrests and summary citations” more egregious than those in the aforementioned violation, and urged the school board to take prompt action to address them.

Until the district does so, Foster said parents must familiarize themselves with the district code of conduct so they understand what does and does not warrant a citation or arrest and can advocate for their students.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.