Black students, especially Black girls, are disproportionately referred to the juvenile justice system by the Pittsburgh Public School district’s own police officers. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet says he plans to change that.
“We’re serious about understanding our data and doing better by our children,” Hamlet said during a school board meeting Wednesday night. “We’re trying to eradicate arrest, citations and out-of-school suspensions and racial disparities that exist in Pittsburgh Public Schools.”
The board approved Hamlet’s proposal Wednesday for an independent evaluation of arrest date to “determine root causes” of the disproportionality.
The board also approved a resolution written by directors Devon Taliaferro and Pam Harbin that will direct administration to create a task force to review how school police interact with students and recommend changes.
“This is the most egregious thing that can happen to a student in our care – that they get arrested and get put into the juvenile justice system,” Harbin said.
The resolution notes that in the last five years PPS students were arrested by School Police Officers 2,500 times. The vast majority of students, about 80 percent each year, were Black. Black students make up about 52 percent of the district's enrollment. In that same time period, 54 percent of Black girls and 42 percent of Black boys were charged with disorderly conduct compared to 10 percent of white girls and 20 percent of white boys. The resolution calls disorderly conduct a "highly discretionary offense that is subject to implicit and explicit bias."
For more than an hour board members debated language in the resolution including who would be selected for the task force. Board member Terry Kennedy said she was concerned that people with “different opinions” would be bullied.
Board member Sala Udin said he thought the resolution did not go far enough to address systemic and institutional racism within the district. He said it “tiptoes” around criticizing the superintendent and administration.
Earlier this month the Black Girls Equity Alliance released a report that found that schools play a considerable role in referrals to the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County. The report concluded that, while the number of overall juvenile justice system referrals have decreased in the county, the rates for Black youth have increased. The rates are higher than the national average by more than 50 percent for Black girls.
Just last year, more than half of the arrests of Pittsburgh youth were made by Pittsburgh Public Schools police officers.
Udin said if Hamlet were a white superintendent “I think we would be raising holy hell.”
“I think that as we go forward we have to be willing to criticize even our friends and people we are in close collaboration with in order to tell the truth,” Udin said. “I think this resolution fails to do that.”
The board unanimously approved the resolution after adding language to clarify that task force members would be district residents.
Hamlet said that he hopes the data analysis is not the end but the beginning of the work.