Fifth-graders Thomas Medley (left) and Devin Walker study their training materials as they learn to become student leaders at Woodland Hills Intermediate. Courtesy of Pittwire.

Black students in the Pittsburgh region are getting suspended at more than double the rate of their white classmates, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh.

The report, written by the University’s Center on Race and Social Problems, is titled “Just Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Greater Pittsburgh.” The analysis is based on Pennsylvania Department of Education Safe School Reports from 2012 to 2016. The report was funded by The Heinz Endowments.

While the report focuses on data from the last several years, the authors say their findings point to larger disparities that have defined Pittsburgh public education for decades. Overall, 37 out of 51 school districts in Allegheny County have suspension rates for black students that are at least double the national average.

“More than 80 percent of our districts have problems with either overall suspension use, racial disparities in those suspensions or both,” said Professor James Huguley, the main author of the report. “Our region has a problem that is not only a social justice issue but also an economic one that is hampering our well-being and our future.”

In particular, Huguley said the increasingly common practice of having police officers stationed in city schools often leads to black students especially getting caught up in the juvenile justice system over common school disputes — creating what’s been described as the school-to-prison pipeline

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh following the launch of the report, Huguley said solving this vexing problem would mean action at both the community and administrative levels.

From the administrators on local school boards and in the state capital, he hopes to see discipline policies adjusted to consider larger racial and economic contexts, as well as more funding for struggling schools.

“A lot of the policy issues are resource-driven,” he said. “Teachers want to experiment and try new things, but often they don’t have the time or the resources to do it.” 

As for changes on the community side, Huguley pointed to a pilot social work program the Center on Race and Social Problems carried out at Woodland Hills Intermediate School over the past year. With additional funding from The Heinz Endowments, the school has hired a full-time intervention specialist to work with the entire student body to head off small infractions that often lead to suspensions.

These interventions include group discussions that encourage airing negative emotions in a constructive way, as well as more light-hearted inter-school events inspired by the House Cup competitions from the “Harry Potter” series.

“Before there are any problems, you’re building a community,” Huguley said of the program.

However, recent events at Woodland Hills serve as troubling examples of many of the issues described in the report.

Last year, guardians of several students filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, claiming that administrators and Churchill police officers working on campus harassed and assaulted students with impunity. One of the many high-profile incidents occurred in April 2017, when Churchill police officer Steve Shaulis knocked out one of the front teeth of a 14-year-old black student after questions about a stolen cell phone escalated into a fight. The 14-year-old was suspended for three days.

Speaking after the report’s launch at the University of Pittsburgh, Huguley emphasized that the study is not about “finger pointing,” and said he is sympathetic to the fact that many of the schools highlighted face daunting challenges when it comes to disciplining their students.

“Teachers, administrators, council members, they’re working hard for our kids. We’re trying to work alongside them,” he said.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.