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Black girls in Pittsburgh leadership program reflect on safety, life and school

Girls in a summer program prepare to present poems about themselves during a recent afternoon workshop.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Girls in a summer program prepare to present poems about themselves during a recent afternoon workshop.

Mikayla feels safest in bookstores where she says she can nerd out; Janasia is most at peace under the LED lights and tapestries in her bedroom; and Myra says she is her most authentic self in a summer program the three attend.

“I feel safe here because I know the people around me look at me as their sister,” Myra said.

Gwen’s Girls, an organization centering around Black girls and empowering them to live productive lives, leads the summer program. But the girls say feeling safe in school is a different story. Sometimes they feel uneasy when fights break out or when police officers enter the building.

“If the police get involved, it goes zero to 100, especially with Black kids. As a Black person, if I see police, I run,” Myra said. “Teenagers are going to fight, especially in high school. There’s a lot of people there and everybody gets aggravated fast. I think they just need to learn to handle the aftermath.”

The three girls attend Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, where security guards are stationed, and school police occasionally drop in. While they have safe spaces in the building — like the engineering wing or a particular Spanish class — they said they feel guarded at school. They said some teachers are quick to call security rather than work to understand student behavior.

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“Once [security and police] learn to better communicate with kids, they’ll be able to have better resolutions and I don’t think there would be as many fights,” Myra said.

New data was recently released showing that Black students — and especially Black girls — disproportionately receive summary citations while in school, an early involvement with the criminal justice system. And it’s gotten worse in the last few years.

While just over half of district students are Black, 89% of citations were issued to Black students in the 2021-22 school year. School board member Pam Harbin told WESA that none of the citations were issued for violence.

Those citations come with a required court appearance and typically a fine. They’re issued for low-level infractions like disorderly conduct, something advocates have called "subjective" for years. After the public pushback, including a protest in the rain outside of the administrative building in Oakland, the board has moved to temporarily ban the use of the citations.

Teen participants in Gwen’s Girls’ summer programming say they need more teachers and staff who care about them and their life outcomes. While they say security guards play an important role in their school, the four Allderdice students who spoke with WESA said they don’t want police officers in their schools. They said they do need more teachers who care about them.

“I feel like PPS needs teachers who care and want to form more one on one relationships but that’s hard when you have such a large amount of kids,” Janasia said.

Mikayla said she wants school staff to have better training to pay attention to student behavior.

“People are usually catching signs of behavioral problems and stuff like that just not being too aware until it's too late. I feel like everyone needs to check in every now and then. I feel like just somebody saying something to you, like showing a little bit of concern for you can help a lot of people,” Mikayla said.

The girls also want school leaders to listen to what they want, to be taught how to speak their needs, and they see a need to make school a place they can be their authentic selves. They need safe spaces and they say they need the district to make that a priority.