Alexis was in elementary school when school police referred her to the juvenile justice system for arguing with a teacher. Three years ago, at age 14, she was arrested again for yelling at other students. This time, she was also expelled from the school.  

“I was nervous and scared,” said Alexis, whose last name and whose schools are being withheld at her request.

Alexis is not alone. In 2020, a report by the Black Girls Equity Alliance [BGEA], an initiative of Gwen’s Girls, found extreme racial disparities in juvenile justice referrals and overcriminalization of Black youth across Allegheny County. 

In response to the report, Gwen’s Girls, a nonprofit organization that works to empower young girls through programs, education and experiences, has initiated a community-wide intervention and prevention helpline called Caring Connections for YOUth. 

Through Caring Connections for YOUth [CC4Youth], Gwen’s Girls and the BGEA have partnered with the United Way 211 helpline, so school administrators, police, teachers and parents can be connected with professionals and organizations who can intervene and provide support in situations such as fights, truancy, disorderly conduct or other minor offenses.

Referrals can also be made directly through Gwen’s Girls or the CC4Youth website

Kathi Elliott, CEO of Gwen’s Girls, said one of the main priorities after releasing the report was to focus on intervening and preventing referrals to juvenile justice systems. Into 2021, Gwen’s Girls met with community members, leaders and organizations that could provide support to the youth and their families. 

“Instead of focusing on what new intervention strategies we could come up with, it only made sense for us to develop a process that bridged the gap and improved access and collaboration and communication with folks that were seeking support and needing of support,” said Elliott. 

Sara Nevels, a Caring Connection for YOUth supervisor, said that referrals have started coming directly from schools, the magistrate’s office and community youth-serving agencies and organizations.

Alexis thinks that if there was something like Caring Connections for YOUth back when she was arrested, she would have been able to ask for help. 

Referrals are down but racial disparities persist

Sara Goodkind, one of the authors of the report and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, said overall referrals to juvenile justice dropped significantly from 2019 to 2021. According to her research, referrals for Black girls decreased by two-thirds during that period. 

“Certainly the decrease in the referrals from schools was because a lot of young people were not in school,” she said. “They were learning from home.”

(Source: Black Girls Equity Alliance)

While referrals for Black youth have decreased significantly, the disparity in referral rates persists. Black girls were referred at 10 times the rate of white girls in 2019. In 2021, Black girls were referred at eight times the rate of white girls.

(Source: Black Girls Equity Alliance)

“Despite overall arrests potentially going down, the disparity in who is being arrested has remained the same, if not higher,” in some districts, said Ghadah Makoshi, a community advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. 

Schools fall short of providing adequate support

Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] police were the largest juvenile justice referral source in the county for Black girls, according to the 2020 report. The report also said PPS students were referred to law enforcement at rates higher than students in 95% of similar U.S. cities and the majority of the arrests were made for minor offenses. 

“Allure,” who asked that her identity be withheld, photographed at Gwen’s Girls on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, on the North Side. Allure is an emerging leader at Gwen’s Girls and was previously referred to the juvenile justice system. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Goodkind said PPS’s high referrals were driven by structural inefficiencies in the district. She said that when incidents happen in the school setting, often the person who is in a position to intervene is the school police officer, who may not have the same training as a mental health professional to de-escalate a situation. 

Carrie Woodard, PPS’ director of student support services for school counselors, said that the district is looking forward to working with Caring Connections. The district invited CC4Youth representatives to present to school counselors and social workers at a professional development session and is now sending referrals to them.

“It’s something that we are definitely welcoming and we want our community to be more involved with our youth,” she said.

Makoshi said that one of the reforms the district could implement is to create a policy that would limit the involvement of police in low-level infractions. She also recommends reinvesting in student support resources instead of putting more funds into school police. 

Ebony Pugh, spokesperson for PPS, said that the district school police officers take multiple annual trainings including training in crisis management and disruptive student management.

Thinking back to her situation, Alexis said she believes her school should have provided her mother with resources, such as counseling or a support teacher.

Jeff Williams, senior director of diversion at the Foundation of Hope, said that while schools have played their part in the school-to-prison pipeline, he anticipates a significant reduction in juvenile justice referrals because of new opportunities created by Caring Connections for YOUth. Foundation of Hope is one of the partner organizations that is receiving referrals through CC4Youth.

“The services in this new initiative would be beneficial because, at the end of the day, they would be able to match a kid with the right program.”

A potential replacement for school police

Anna Hollis Kander, executive director of the nonprofit Amachi Pittsburgh, views Caring Connections for YOUth as a replacement for school police rather than an alternative. 

“It’s about the fact that our educational institutions have replaced the critical role of social workers, of support staff, of nurses, that kids need in the schools, with police officers whose job looks completely different from that of a social worker,” she said. 

The new initiative also aims to reduce the number of summary citations issued by school police   — by giving them an alternative to call Caring Connections. 

Summary citations are issued for minor behaviors, and a young person is required to appear before a district magistrate, often resulting in a fine. The BGEA report said Black youth were 10 times more likely than white youth to be referred to juvenile court for failure to pay a fine resulting from a summary citation. PPS police were responsible for issuing the largest number of original citations, according to the 2020 report. 

Alexis, who asked that her last name be withheld, at Gwen’s Girls on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, on the North Side. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Makoshi said the citations are most harmful to people in mid- to low-income brackets who may find it difficult to pay a fine. They are considered criminal offenses and stay on the individual’s record. For many young people, citations can impact future opportunities even if they were issued for minor offenses such as obscene language or vaping.

“Students don’t learn anything from these. It doesn’t curb behavior,” she said. 

Since the BGEA report came out, there has been some positive change, said Dennis Jones, executive director of Youth Enrichment Services. He has seen an increase in intervention and prevention programs for juvenile justice. He said more money needs to be invested in such programs.

“We know what the problems are,” he said. “We know what some solutions are. We just haven’t got the will yet to really invest the kind of resources.”

To reach Caring Connections, anyone in Allegheny County can call 211 and press 3.

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...