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Pittsburgh Public Schools extends pause on summary citations while it drafts new discipline policy

A doormat reading Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) will extend its pause on issuing summary citations through the end of January, giving school board members more time to craft a policy that addresses how the district uses this disciplinary measure.

Summary citations, also known as non-traffic citations, are the most minor type of criminal offense one can receive in Pennsylvania and often apply to low-level infractions, like disorderly conduct.

Recipients are ordered to appear before a magisterial district judge. Once there, students are typically assessed fines, and failure to pay could result in a referral to juvenile court.

Black students in the district — and especially Black girls — disproportionately receive summary citations in comparison to other groups. Black students make up just over half of the district’s enrollment; they received 89% of citations issued during the 2021-2022 school year.

Students with disabilities were also overrepresented among those receiving citations compared to their share of the population.

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The moratorium on the practice was set to expire at the end of this month, when the Board of Directors’ joint policy and safety committee was expected to present a policy proposal. But members of the committee requested an additional 60 days to gather stakeholder feedback on their preliminary draft.

It defines the procedures schools must take before and after a school police officer issues a citation, including communication with parents and school principals.

The committee has held feedback sessions with district administration, police, students and building principals in the months since the moratorium went into effect this June. Director Jamie Piotrowski said participants described schools that each have a unique culture and different ways to address citations.

The 2022-2023 Code of Student Conduct mentions only that for students with disabilities, a support team meeting must be held prior to issuing a citation. (New language in the current code of conduct, however, clarifies that this applies to truancy citations only.)

“But for something as serious as issuing a citation, we wanted to clear up what that process would be so that it was uniform across all of our buildings,” she said.

A preliminary draft of the proposed policy spells out how and when school police must notify principals of a citation, according to Piotrowski. She said it also would require schools to notify families of the citation and do so in their preferred language.

“The actual citation comes in the mail, so it is possible that parents or guardians don't even know that a citation has been issued,” Piotrowski said.

School police reserve the discretion to issue citations, though teachers or parents can ask that one be issued. Certain violations of the Student Code of Conduct require police notification, including vandalism, sexual harassment or inciting a violent disturbance or melee.

But district policy requires that disciplinary measures outlined in the code of conduct are imposed only when positive behavior interventions have been unsuccessful, or if a student’s behavior warrants an immediate disciplinary referral.

“They try all kinds of different intervention methods prior to issuing a citation,” Piotrowski said. “Even our officers — they'll try and have 1:1 mentoring; they'll do parent-teacher conferences; they'll have different restorative practice methods.”

The school board voted to approve the extension Tuesday during its final legislative session of the current board, with an abstention from outgoing director Bill Gallagher and a no vote from director Sylvia Wilson.

Wilson, a former staff member at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and retired elementary school teacher, voted against the initial moratorium in June after expressing concerns that it would tie teachers’ hands.

Piotrowski emphasized the importance of bringing the measure back under the district’s purview once the moratorium ends, or the schools could risk interference from city police if parents or staff ask them to bring charges against a student while the pause is in effect.

“It keeps it all in-house, so to speak, so that there can be more collaborative relationship building — relationship repair, even,” Piotrowski said.

Advocates like Ghadah Makoshi with the ACLU, however, are urging administrators to ensure that the practice isn’t overly utilized by school police in a way that “when other interventions are far more effective.”

The district employs 11 police officers, down from 18 during the 2021-2022 school year.

“If PPS’s tagline of ‘Students First’ is true, then ensure it is implemented in all areas, even school discipline,” Makoshi said Monday during the district’s public hearing.

School board members hope to present a policy proposal in December when three new members join the board.

Corrected: November 22, 2023 at 10:51 AM EST
This story has been updated with additional information on the district's Student Code of Conduct.
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.