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Advocates urge Highlands school officials to address racial disparities

Desks in an elementary school classroom.
Matt Slocum
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa.

Advocates are urging officials at a school district in northern Allegheny County to address what they say is a “persistent” history of racism and discrimination against Black students and students with disabilities.

The calls come from a joint letter addressed to administrators at Highlands School District, located in Natrona Heights, from the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and attorneys at the Education Law Center (ELC).

According to ELC senior attorney Hetal Dhagat, the two groups met with superintendent Monique Mawhinney in August 2023 to discuss concerns from parents about racial hostility, racial disparities in school discipline and a failure to provide adequate special education services.

Federally-reported civil rights data show Black students in the district received more than 30% of referrals to law enforcement during the 2017-2018 school year, despite making up just under 10% of the district's roughly 2,200 students.

Dhagat said many of those referrals resulted in summary citations, the most minor criminal offense issued in Pennsylvania that can also go on an individual's permanent record. She added that a review of Pennsylvania court data found the majority of summary citations issued by Highlands School District school police were for discretionary infractions like “disorderly conduct.”

The joint letter also details instances in which Black students were suspended for refusing to remove hair coverings, such as headbands, that were being used to protect their hair or as part of a culturally significant hairstyle. Dhagat said suspending students for that reason would be in direct violation of measures codified in Allegheny County in 2020 to ensure protection from discrimination on the basis of hair texture or style.

It goes on to add that students with disabilities failed to receive learning supports schools are required to provide to them under federal law. Parents reported to the organizations that they were frustrated by the district’s “lack of understanding of how mental health can affect a student’s attendance, behavior, and learning at school.”

Dhaghat said ELC and the Urban League met with dozens of community members to gather community input on how to best address the issues at hand. Their action plan details more than a dozen concrete steps, including hiring an administrator to address school climate, creating stakeholder committees of students and parents, and revising policies around dress codes and school discipline.

“We do believe that working with external experts to provide workshops for teachers, convening stakeholder groups that include parents, students and school staff, and really exploring specific strategies to revise policies and practice on discipline would go a really long way in addressing these longstanding issues,” Dhagat said.

Dhagat said advocates want to collaborate with the district on steps forward. Highlands School District officials were unable to provide comment in time for this story.

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.