Pittsburgh’s police department and its school district have failed for more than a decade to agree on a cooperative agreement that is required by state law as leaders consider how to ensure safety in schools without criminalizing common student behaviors.
The law, established in 2010, directs schools and law enforcement agencies to sign a memorandum of understanding that outlines how the two agencies communicate and interact. Negotiations picked up during the latter years of former Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration, but no agreement was signed. The two sides could not agree on how much information Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] should share with police.
Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration has not yet picked up talks this year. Gainey’s first move as mayor was to replace Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, who was involved in the talks, with Lee Schmidt.
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The school district solicitor Ira Weiss said he expects talks to resume soon, and “I have no doubt that we’ll get this done.”
Pittsburgh’s police bureau does have agreements signed with other schools in the city. Hissrich, the city’s public safety director from 2016 through 2021, said he signed off on numerous such agreements during his tenure, most of them following boilerplate language provided by the state.
Weiss said the talks between PPS and the city were held up over what kinds of student violations the schools would be required to report to the city police. He said city police wanted to go beyond the standard list of violations required to be reported under state law and add some from the list of matters for which reporting was optional. (He could not name specific violations.)
“The school board is concerned about the tendency to overcite disproportionately with Black and Brown students,” Weiss said.
School Board President Sala Udin deferred questions to Weiss.
Hissrich contradicted Weiss’ account of the talks, saying he only sought the standard agreement. “It was PPS that wanted to limit the list drastically from the state’s recommendations,” he said.
Hissrich said the school board went beyond his comfort zone in the list of violations they wanted to make discretionary for reporting.
“[The district] would not sign off on it unless we made some concessions that I was not willing to make,” Hissrich said.
Hissrich signed a memorandum of understanding in 2020 between the Pittsburgh police and Catalyst Academy Charter School that commits each side to “maintain a cooperative relationship” and lays out exactly which violations the schools are required to notify the police of and which ones are discretionary. The lists in the agreement are the standard ones suggested by the state.
The agreement lists weapon possession, aggravated assault, stalking, sexual assault, rape and vandalism, among others, as mandatory reports. Its list of discretionary reports includes simple assault, terroristic threats, harassment, indecent exposure, theft and alcohol use.
The document also lays out what information the school will provide to the police when it makes a referral, such as the locations of in-progress incidents and weapons involved, and it provides guidelines for the police to follow when responding at school facilities.
Curt Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, said the agreements are an important way of ensuring consistent interaction between two large entities that operate in very different ways.
“The train can come off the tracks easily if someone doesn’t know what the other person is doing,” Lavarello said. “The [memorandum of understanding] provides a basis for law enforcement operations in an educational environment and provides basic stability.”
PPS has its own police that can make arrests but do not carry firearms. Friction in previous talks about a potential agreement centered not only around what kinds of student violations the schools would be required to report to the city police, but also whether police could enter schools to arrest students for out-of-school crimes.
Hissrich said the two sides were “down to the fine print” when he left his post at the end of 2021, but could not comment on the current state of negotiations. Earlier, in 2019, Hissrich signed a proposed agreement but school board members rejected it.
Hissrich said the police need information about serious offenses like assault or weapon possession, and the ability to arrest students involved in them, to prevent further crime. He said he had no desire to require reports of alcohol or marijuana violations.
The negotiations were ongoing in 2020 when some advocates, while racial justice protests gripped the country, pushed to minimize police presence in schools. While Gainey’s mayoral campaign was focused on law enforcement accountability, he has been explicit about the need to reform, but not shrink or eliminate, its police.
Hissrich said the lack of an agreement does not necessarily make it harder for the police to respond to crises, such as active shooters. “I felt confident that they were ensuring safety in the schools,” he said. Weiss, too, said the lack of a pact does not threaten safety in schools.
Lavarello said not having an agreement can create “distrust” between the two entities, and “inconsistencies can lead to vulnerability and a lack of communications can lead to more lawsuits.”
Weiss said the school district has not yet begun negotiating an agreement with the new administration, though he has brought it up informally with the new city solicitor, Krysia Kubiak. He said he is encouraged by the new administration’s “more cooperative” stance toward the school district.
Emily Sauchelli contributed to this report.
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