In Pittsburgh, a city not known for its livability for Black residents, Black girls are 10 times more likely than white girls to be referred to the juvenile justice system. Black boys are seven times more likely than white boys to be referred.

Black youth locally are referred at higher rates than Black youth nationally and White youth locally are referred at lower rates than white youth nationally.

What’s going on?

Some answers can be found in a just-published report called Understanding and Addressing Institutionalized Inequity: Disrupting Pathways to Juvenile Justice for Black Youth in Allegheny County released today by Gwen’s Girls and the Black Girls Equity Alliance.

In the last four years, the Pittsburgh Police, Allegheny County, Juvenile Probation Office and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services have worked with the Black Girls Equity Alliance, providing and analyzing data and practices that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. (Read more about the school-to-prison pipeline in this award-winning story in NEXTpittsburgh.)

Other findings in the report:

  • Students from Pittsburgh Public Schools are referred to law enforcement at rates higher than students in 95% of similar U.S. cities.
  • The majority of arrests made by Pittsburgh Public Schools police are for minor offenses that are not safety-related.
  • Students with disabilities constitute a large proportion of Pittsburgh Public Schools students referred to juvenile justice by the Pittsburgh Public Schools police.
  • Black youth are 10 times more likely than White youth to be referred to juvenile court for failure to comply with a lawful order, often failure to pay a fine, stemming from a summary citation.

“This report makes it clear: Pittsburgh’s schools, like its other institutions, are racially biased against Black students,” said Kathi Elliott, CEO of Gwen’s Girls and convener of the Black Girls Equity Alliance.

Elliott points out that the “over-policing of students doesn’t make our schools any safer — many of the arrests, referrals or citations are for minor incidents considered disorderly conduct, such as being loud and disruptive, swearing or making obscene gestures.”

When Black students engaging in typical teenage behavior are treated as criminals, that record follows them for years,” she added. “It’s time to focus on solutions. We are looking forward to collaborating with the many system leaders to implement policies and practices that support our students and not criminalize them.

“This report specifically opens up an educational dialogue about system response to African American youth and minority groups. I would ask that each partner takes this report back to their agency and have ‘real conversations.’”

The report concludes with recommendations for schools, law enforcement, judges, and others:

  • Ensure transparency and accountability from schools and other youth-serving systems — require school districts to make public their referrals to juvenile justice by race, gender and disability.
  • Eliminate disorderly conduct as an infraction in schools’ codes of conduct. This is the most frequent charge in youth arrests and is thought to be too vague and punitive and used in discriminatory ways.
  • Ensure that all school policies and practices are structured to prevent the criminalization of Black youth.
  • Eliminate school police. Research shows the harmful and punitive effects of police in schools. Reallocate funds to hire more school counselors, social workers and psychologists.
  • Provide educators with the training and support they need to help rather than criminalize youth.
  • Develop, fund and promote alternatives to justice system processing for youth who need help. Develop pre-arrest diversion countywide like they do in Philadelphia.
  • Stop referring youth to juvenile justice for failure to pay fines for summary citations. This results in punishing those in poverty.

As reported earlier by NEXTpittsburgh, the Black Girls Equity Alliance will host a Town Hall Meeting featuring school leaders, police, juvenile probation officers, judges and advocates to discuss how to act on the findings of the report and its recommendations. The meeting will be held on September 17 from 3 to 5 p.m. Register in advance via Zoom here.

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.