By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Pittsburgh Public Schools board has embarked on a focus on student arrests and involvement with the juvenile justice system by hiring a consultant to disaggregate its data on police calls for service, arrests and citations involving district students.
From the 2015-2016 school year through the 2019-2020 school year, Pittsburgh students were arrested by school police more than 2,500 times and a recent report by Black Girls Equity Alliance identified the district as the largest source of referrals for black girls in the county.
The board hired RMC Research Corporation at its legislative meeting Wednesday, at a cost of $17,000, to disaggregate the police data by year and student characteristics including gender, grade, age, race, Individualized Education Plan status and English language status. It will also identify the location, officer and offense category.
“This will send a message to the community and to the state. We are serious about understanding our data and doing better by our children.,” said Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.
The board also approved a resolution, proposed by school directors Pam Harbin and Devon Taliaferro, that calls for, in part, the posting of the disaggregated data on the district’s website and monthly reports including the data on school board agendas.
While the majority of the board thanked Harbin and Taliaferro for their work on the resolution after a lengthy discussion about some of the wording, school director Sala Udin said it did not address the institutional racism in the district that leads to the disparate treatment of black students.
Hamlet countered that the data analysis would help the district identify instances and causes of institutional racism.
“This is not an ending. This is a beginning of the work. The deep work that needs to be done to find out what the root causes are,” Hamlet said. “We are ready to do the work. Let’s work together to make this a better place for our children.”
The “Reimagine Safety in Pittsburgh Public Schools Resolution” said that while total arrests of students have decreased in the Pittsburgh schools from 2015-2016 to last school year, the proportion of arrests of black students has not decreased.
Of the 2,500 student arrests, it said, about 80 percent were of black students, though they make up 53 percent of the district’s enrollment.
The resolution points out that on average, 37 percent of total student arrests are for disorderly conduct, which it terms “a highly discretionary offense that is subject to implicit and explicit bias.”
It said, among black students, 54 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys were charged with disorderly conduct in 2019, compared with 10 percent of white girls and 20 percent of white boys.
The resolution states the police involvement perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline and that many of the incidents could be better handled with “restorative practices, diversion programs, or other community based services.”
It asks that by Jan. 1, 2021, police data similar to that reported to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for the school years 2015-2016 through 2019-2020 be posted on the district website and include the number of students arrested, referred or issued a summary citation in each school disaggregated by race, age and sex.
It asks for the same data to be posted disaggregated by students with disabilities and for district administrators to present the same information each month on the board’s agenda.
Harbin and Taliaferro’s resolution also calls for the creation of a Task Force to Reimagine School Safety, an ad-hoc community group, to work with the administration and the board Safety and Operations Committee. The committee is set to be formed by Nov. 1 and provide a report to the board by March 31, 2021 and to the public in April 2021.