From school to jail: How hundreds of kids get arrested in Pittsburgh schools every year

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and School Safety Chief George Brown address racial disparities in student arrests. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

"F--- you. I don’t talk to pigs.”

Victor was already upset, and now the school cops were on his back. He spewed profanities as an officer tried to stop an argument Victor was having with his girlfriend. He asked the cop to hit him, according to court documents, then taunted him for needing backup to force him out of his high school.

Police say the 18-year-old balled his fists. He assumed a “fighting stance.”

That’s considered felony assault. So Victor spent the night in Allegheny County Jail.

But then Pittsburgh Public Schools reviewed the incident when considering whether or not to suspend or expel Victor. Victor's lawyer knew school district hearings are tough to win. Though after officers testified to their version of the scene to school officials, the lawyer asked that the surveillance video be played.

It didn’t show a punch. Or a fighting stance. Or any physical contact beyond handcuffing.

“The kid was absolutely mouthing off. But that’s all he was doing,” said his lawyer, Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson, who supervises the Juvenile Defender Clinic and Education Law Clinic at the Duquesne University School of Law.

The district’s hearing officer handed down a 10-day suspension — a far cry from prison time he could face with a felony conviction —– and explained that she didn’t see Victor touch any officers.

Racial disparities in arrests and citations (2013-14 through 2016-17 school years)

*Note: The figures do not add up to 100% because numbers were rounded.
Source: Pittsburgh Public Schools

Separately, local prosecutors dropped all charges except for a summary offense for disorderly conduct. Victor received no punishment, though the teen had already spent a night in jail among adult criminals.

Police stand by their account, saying the hearing only determined that the video was unclear.

“Both the adult witnesses said the young man got into a fighting stance,” said Chief George Brown, who heads the district's school safety department.

Victor, who PublicSource is not naming in full for privacy reasons, declined to be interviewed. But his case shows exactly the sort of harsh consequences advocates say students face simply because they share their school hallways with police.

In the past four school years, Pittsburgh school police filed charges 3,400 times for cases that occurred on school grounds, according to a PublicSource analysis of school police records obtained through a Right-to-Know request.

These figures include 1,830 juvenile arrests, along with less serious citations and about 160 cases involving adults, who were mostly 18 and 19-year-olds.

School administrators can, and do, call the school police on students even in elementary school. And the racial disparity in which students age 10 and older face arrests and citations at school is staggering.

“They are essentially skipping behavioral interventions, and going directly to law enforcement,” said Sizemore-Thompson, a former juvenile public defender. “It’s really troubling, to say the least.”

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet says it’s all about safety. But he knows taking students from school can be harmful.

He points to new guidance for administrators on when to call police and thinks added social supports for students, something already outlined in a plan to reduce expulsions and suspensions, could reduce arrests.

“Anything that we can do to stop kids from being suspended out of school, being arrested, you know, having traumatic incidents…” Hamlet said. “I mean, that’s what we’re all about.”

But so far, student advocates say little is being done to reduce arrests, and Pittsburgh’s approach falls well short of efforts embraced by other districts in the state and nation to keep students out of the justice system.

Pittsburgh’s race problem

In Pittsburgh, police intervention is a black and white issue.

In case after case — 80 percent of the time — charges are filed against black individuals, mostly juveniles, according to our analysis of school police incident data from September 2013 through mid-June 2017. These include low-level summary offenses like tobacco use to misdemeanors like marijuana possession and felonies like simple and aggravated assault.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, we found only 11 percent of charges were filed against white individuals in the past four school years. Roughly one third of the district’s student population is white and just more than half are black.

The other 8.5 percent involve students of other races or cases that didn’t include that information.

Attorney Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson sees campus police as the reason too many kids leave school with criminal records. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh Public Schools was authorized to create a police force in 1997. The department runs independent of the City of Pittsburgh, and school police patrol each high school and respond to calls on a roving basis at other campuses. Although they are not armed, they function as any other police force and can arrest and hand out citations to both juveniles and adults.

Advocates say even a single interaction with police can knock students off the path to a diploma toward ongoing involvement with the criminal justice system.

“Once you open up the juvenile justice system can of worms, it holds on to a particular student or child in a way that becomes hard to untangle,” said Chaz Arnett, a legal professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a former juvenile public defender.

Those tangles hold back far fewer white students.

“Having those numbers just stare you in the face really points out the disparity,” said Lynda Wrenn, a school board member representing District 4.

Wrenn also touted the district’s action to reduce suspensions and expulsions but isn’t aware of any board discussions to limit the role of school police, which other districts have embraced, including Broward County, Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

At Duquesne, Sizemore-Thompson expected the work to be challenging. She didn’t expect to encounter such shocking cases and what seems like schools pushing students to jail instead of graduation.

In her first year running the Education Law Clinic, her caseload included two kindergarteners handcuffed by police.

“These are real kindergartners,” she said, emphasizing their small stature. “These are not mutant, 5-foot-5 kindergartners.”

One client, a 6-year-old, had a meltdown that culminated in her being handcuffed after spraying an officer with canned air used to clean electronics, Sizemore-Thompson said. Then she was placed in a police car until family took her home.

“She told her mother, unsolicited, ‘I’m a bad person,’” Sizemore-Thompson said of the handcuffing.

Brown did not comment on the incident specifically but defends handcuffing as a safety measure, even for students younger than 10.

“Our kids are so smart, and even as far as street smarts, things of that nature, that you cannot downplay handcuffing for their safety and yours. I’ll keep repeating that,” Brown told district board members in May.

Incidents involving students younger than 10 don’t appear in the police data PublicSource obtained. Police in those cases are essentially acting as security and responding to behavioral issues. They can't file charges (and aren't trying to) but they can restrain students with handcuffs.These students are considered too young to be sent through the juvenile system.

But what happens when students age into the system?

Arrests/citation totals by age (2013-14 through 2016-17 school years)

*Note: Police could not provide information for 141 cases.
Source: Pittsburgh Public Schools

Police provided data on 175 cases involving 10-year-olds in the past four school years. Only 22 of those incidents involved white juveniles, and 143 incidents involved black juveniles.

Disorderly conduct is the most common offense for black 10-year-olds in cases with a single charge. Police filed 42 such cases against black 10-year-olds and only six against white 10-year-olds.

Police did not provide case files, but here are descriptions police gave for disorderly conduct cases involving 10-year-olds:

  • “Female actor disrupted a class by cussing and trying to get after another student.”
  • “Student was disorderly inside of school. Use of profanity. Disruptive behavior.”
  • “Actor is disruptive at school.”

Disorderly conduct is considered a summary offense, punishable by a fine or community service, or a more serious misdemeanor, which means a student is sent toward juvenile court, depending on officer discretion.

The racial disparity concerns Cheryl Kleiman, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center. She doesn’t believe that black students are behaving differently but are instead being treated more harshly than their white peers.

“We're now saying that the children that are most likely to have that even initial contact are black students. And that’s simply unacceptable,” Kleiman said.

What’s progress?

Pittsburgh is not blind to this.

Brown says his officers care deeply about students. He said his first question to a student who seemed troubled used to be, “Are you hungry?”

Officers make arrests because state law says to, he said. They aren’t looking to simply make arrests and throw students into the justice system.

“It’s not just cutting dry wheat. We’re dealing with kids,” said Brown, who hails from the Hill District. “If there’s a 15-year-old kid, I don’t want to see him when he’s 18 again.”

Officers routinely request counseling through juvenile court, he said, and also offer positive support, including as coaches of sports teams outside of school.

“My people do have a passion for kids,” Brown said, “or I would have a problem with that.”

Under his leadership, he points out, juvenile arrests are down.

Juvenile arrests in Pittsburgh Public Schools

Source: Pittsburgh Public Schools

In the 2014-15 school year, the department tallied 488 juvenile referrals, which includes arrests of juveniles ages 10 to 17.

He was named chief in May 2015, and the tally dropped to 467 in the 2015-16 school year. It dropped again to 445 arrests in the 2016-17 school year, according to statistics from the chief.

But jump across the state and you’ll learn that school arrests in Philadelphia dropped 54 percent in a single school year.

Why? The now-retired deputy police commissioner responsible for arrests in Philadelphia schools realized that arresting students sent them down a harmful path.

After championing a program to send more students to social services instead of to court, arrests dropped from 1,580 in the 2013-14 school year to 724 the next year, and they’ve continued to drop to 500 — not far from what we saw here in a district one-fifth its size.

Brown thinks arrests here will drop again next year.

Hamlet, entering his second year as superintendent, is pushing restorative justice programming to reduce discipline problems and said the district is looking for programs that provide social services to students.

“Kids get arrested, get suspended, that’s not solving the problem,” Hamlet said. “We want to make sure they’re getting support.”

Picking small fights

To student advocates, modest decreases in arrests of students are a weak consolation.

At the Education Law Center, Kleiman thinks police should be pulled from schools. They aren’t appearing in rare, limited scenarios. They’re normalized, and empowered to handcuff even elementary schoolers.

“It’s not about a reduction,” Kleiman said. “These practices are harming children every day. And the harm needs to be stopped.”

Board member Moira Kaleida said she’s concerned that the district could put students into the juvenile system for minor behavioral problems.

Chief George Brown says his officers want to save students, not harm them. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

“Is a kid going to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline because they were flicking spitballs across the room?” Kaleida said. “I don’t ever want to contribute to it.”

The board did get a crack at reform.

But in revising the department’s badly outdated operation’s manual this spring, Kaleida said more basic changes were needed, like scrubbing it of offensive wording like references to “known homosexuals.”

“What I’ve learned is that this policy was in such dire need of being redone that I’m gonna fight the little fights I can right now,” Kaleida said.

Instead, Kaleida said the board is first working to reduce suspensions and expulsions, which does not change an officer’s authority to hand out tickets or make arrests.

Meanwhile, at Duquesne, Sizemore-Thompson is gearing up for another year of a different sort of little fights.

For many students — mostly black and often with disabilities — her office is the last line of defense. They come to her, or they’re left to a system she thinks does little else but inflict harm.

If reforms have made a difference, she’s not seeing it.

“You need actual, meaningful, real, deep, impactful changes,” she said. “Because things are not looking any different on the ground for these kids.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at jeff@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

About the data

PublicSource analyzed school arrest and citation data from Pittsburgh Public Schools for the past four school years, beginning with the 2013-2014 school year. This data, obtained through Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, includes 3,400 instances where the school police filed charges against individuals. In the vast majority of cases (91 percent), charges were filed against juveniles, age 10-17. The remainder of charges were filed against adults 18-63, though the majority of these adult cases involve teenagers. Age is not specified in 141 cases (about 4 percent of the total). Police interactions with students under 10 are not included.

Unfortunately, the data does not definitively say which incidents involved arrests and which involved lower-level citations. Distinctions are easy to make in many cases (an aggravated assault is an arrest, a parking violation is not), but some charges, such as disorderly conduct, are discretionary and can either lead to a citation or an arrest. The district could not provide more robust data.

The district separately provided aggregate tallies of juvenile arrests for the past four school years, which adds up to 1,830 juvenile arrests. Separate tallies of juvenile citations were not available.

One caveat to be aware of it is that, the 3,400 and 1,830 totals do not indicate the exact number of individuals charged -- the same person could be counted more than once if charges were filed in more than one incident. Additionally, more than one individual could be charged for a single incident (for instance a fight), and these individuals are counted separately.

Police could not provide race data in about 2 percent of cases. Age data is missing in about four percent of cases.

Lastly, the records only show when police filed charges and do not specify how cases were resolved.