Agreement between Pittsburgh Public Schools and city police is progress, but doesn’t address failures of school district police
by Ghadah Makoshi
After more than a decade, Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police have reached an agreement about how city police interact with students. Under state law, every public school district in the commonwealth must have a written agreement with local law enforcement about how and when officers become involved with student matters.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania welcomes these new guidelines as a step in the right direction for student safety and their civil rights and liberties. But much work remains to be done. Without other meaningful policy changes — like setting clearer rules for how the district’s own police interact with students — the agreement between the district and city police will fall short of the goal of keeping students safe and secure. We will continue to push for additional reforms to protect student safety and minimize student contact with law enforcement in schools.
Last year, we released a report that examined the impact of police in schools across Allegheny County. Our findings were startling.
Student Arrests in Allegheny County Schools: The Need for Transparency and Accountability concluded that across Allegheny County, students are more likely to be arrested at school than students elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Many of these arrests were for typical disciplinary issues you might find in any school. Very few arrests were for more serious crimes like bringing a weapon to school. Our study found that Black students and students with disabilities are particularly at risk. We also found that racial disparities impacting Black students exist in schools across Allegheny County, regardless of the size of the school or the number of Black students attending. Students with disabilities were arrested at nearly three times the rate of students without disabilities. Most strikingly, Black girls were arrested at 14 times the rate of white girls in school-related matters.
Even when not arrested, many students receive tickets from police ordering them to appear in court. This can have long-lasting impacts on the student. Even minor police-student contact creates a law enforcement record that doesn’t automatically go away, regardless of the disciplinary outcome.
While it’s impossible to predict how the new guidelines between the district and city police might impact the student arrest rate in Allegheny County, there are a number of improvements.
One reform includes a new set of criteria that police shall consider when making a decision about whether to arrest or issue a summons to a student on campus. Pittsburgh police officers once had wide authority to arrest or summon students for questioning. Under the new agreement, they must now consider the seriousness of an offense. Officers must also take into account whether there is an imminent threat to public safety and what reasonable alternatives there are to arrest.
Another important change in the new agreement is clear language mandating the use of Miranda warnings — the warning that you have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. To further protect the rights of students, we call on the district and city police to update this language to ensure that students understand their rights. This means issuing Miranda warnings in a language that can be understood by students of any age or level of sophistication.
Finally, the agreement reaffirms federal student privacy and disability law and the duty of schools to protect the privacy of their students. School officials can only share information from student records with local police only under narrow circumstances.
Where the agreement falls short is in setting rules for the school district’s police own interactions with students. Data on arrests and citations made by the school police officers employed by the district show disturbing racial disparities. Black students and students with disabilities were arrested or issued a summary citation at a much higher rate than white students. The district’s own numbers show that over 80% of arrests and citations were issued to Black students. Black students make up only 53% of the student population in Allegheny County. Even as the overall number of arrests and citations have decreased over the last five years, these disparities still remain high.
While the ACLU of Pennsylvania applauds this agreement, the district must work to strengthen its internal policies and update the police manual that directs its own district officers. School district police that are stationed in school buildings are often the first line of contact between students and law enforcement.
Currently, the district police manual contains no guidelines on when an officer should issue a summary citation and merely lists the information that should be collected for reporting and to share this information with a supervisor. When between 80–90% of summary citations are issued to Black students each year, the district has a duty to provide far more comprehensive guidelines. If not, the district will continue to enable a pipeline that funnels Black youth into the criminal legal system.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania will continue to push for a comprehensive set of guidelines regarding student interaction with school district police. We hope that such guidelines will match the positive steps codified in the agreement with city police. Our students deserve nothing less.
Ghadah Makoshi is a community advocate at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.