In her first few months running the Education Law Clinic, Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson met a 9-year-old girl who was charged with destruction of property for writing on a school file cabinet with a marker.
She was shocked. She had thought most of her clients at the Duquesne University clinic would be older students already involved with the juvenile justice system. Not such a young kid doing pretty typical kid things.
Turns out most of her clients are elementary students, something she finds “tremendously heartbreaking.”
Each client represents the trend of school districts to push out already vulnerable populations of students — black students, those with disabilities and LGBTQ youth — for what is often normal child or adolescent behavior.
The result is students missing school for court appearances or because of suspensions and expulsions, increasing the likelihood that they will drop out before graduation and end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I think the message is really just about the fact that we, meaning all of the schools in the country, have to stop criminalizing adolescents,” said Sizemore-Thompson, a clinical professor of law at Duquesne.
She was among about a dozen local, state and national panelists brought together Thursday at the “Lift Us Up! Take Action to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline” event held at the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill District.
The event was sponsored by the Dignity in Schools Campaign, the Education Rights Network and One Pittsburgh. It was part of the 7th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout, which runs through Sunday and includes activities in more than 100 locations across the country that call for schools to abandon zero-tolerance policies and institute restorative justice practices.
The organizations want to see funding shifted from providing school police to providing more counselors and social workers. They’re also asking for the use of mediation and positive, rather than punitive, interventions for students who violate school rules.
Finally, they say the arrests of students of color, LGBTQ youth, homeless students and students with disabilities must stop.
The issue is one that panelist Tanya Clay House has dealt with as a policymaker and parent. The deputy assistant secretary for preschool through 12th-grade education in the U.S. Department of Education is black and the mother of two boys, ages 3 and 7, who she describes as “rambunctious” and “high-spirited.”
She said the 7-year-old has had “outbursts” at school and that she has contacted the teacher to declare, “He is not going to be that black child that you are going to put somewhere because he has energy and needs to walk around.”
Other speakers at Thursday evening’s event in the Hill District told stories of school officials not only suspending students for minor offenses but, in many cases, also calling on school police to prosecute them criminally.
While there was no evidence presented that arrests of students are routine in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, data presented earlier this week by the A+ Schools advocacy group shows disparate suspension rates for black students and students with disabilities.
One in 33 white students were suspended from Pittsburgh schools during the 2014-15 school year, while nine in 33 black students were suspended, said A+ Schools Executive Director James Fogarty.
Of the suspensions, 76 percent were issued to black students though black students make up 53 percent of the Pittsburgh schools population, Fogarty said.
Additionally, more than 30 percent of students with special education designations were suspended from 19 Pittsburgh schools in 2014-15. The report said LGBTQ students were also disproportionately affected but gave no statistics.
The A+ Schools report said the majority of suspensions were for minor infractions such as disrupting class, tardiness or dress code violations.
A fact sheet distributed at the Thursday event stated that there were 9,920 out-of-school suspensions in the Pittsburgh schools in 2014-15.
Of that total, 70 percent were for conduct, 28 percent for violence, 1 percent for weapons and 1 percent for drug, alcohol and tobacco violations.
Officials suspended students in grades kindergarten through fifth more than 1,500 times.
Pittsburgh Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, also a panelist at the Lift Us Up! event, said the district has to review its policies, and that principals and all school staff need to be trained to de-escalate student situations.
Hamlet also plans to create a “culturally relevant curriculum” and to try to hire more black teaching staff, particularly men, to provide role models for students. Currently, 84 percent of the teachers in the district are white.
Police in schools was a hot-button topic with the panelists and audience.
ACLU senior policy advocate Harold Jordan said the ACLU sees “a big problem with the role that police play in schools” because there are no uniform standards on police conduct in schools and on such practices as handcuffing students.
“In Pennsylvania, school police are not clearly regulated. It’s not clear when police can search a student. Practices vary all across the state,” Jordan said.
Some principals call police for routine school discipline issues while in other cases, like one Jordan is working on now, a district superintendent can’t control her own school police department.
Jordan said the School District of Philadelphia cut its arrest rate in half by making the decision to not dispatch police for level-one infractions, which include tardiness and dress code violations. The district also has a pre-arrest diversion program through which school officials examine problems with students and divert them to a social worker or other staff for help.
There are school police officers in the district’s high schools, but Hamlet said they should not be involved in routine discipline matters. “You don’t call the cops for things that aren’t criminal,” he said.
The audience of about 70 people applauded Sizemore-Thompson’s call for the removal of all police officers from school buildings.
“The data tells the story,” said Thena Robinson-Mock, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center, also a speaker at the Lift Us Up! event.
Robinson-Mock said school officials need to look at the root problem of a student’s behavioral issues before automatically defaulting to harsh punishments.
“It might be that they are under the supervision of probation or foster care placement and not getting the services they need,” Robinson-Mock said.
“We are actually denying a student access to education for using a curse word when there are alternatives.”
Robinson-Mock said among the solutions is making sure that teachers are trauma informed and trauma responsive. That would help them to understand the traumas students may face outside of the classroom and how they may affect their behavior in the classroom.
Students could be homeless or hungry or be witness to or victims of domestic or sexual abuse, for example. A trauma-informed professional learns how to respond to certain behavior by helping the student rather than punishing them. Teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools are trained in trauma-informed care.
But with the stats what they are locally and nationwide, Robinson-Mock says:
“We have to ask: Are we creating schools where kids are being re-traumatized?”
Mary Niederberger is a freelance writer focused on covering youth and education in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MaryNied.