Can Pittsburgh educators stop the churn of students through the school-to-prison pipeline?

As other districts embrace sweeping changes, Pittsburgh Public Schools is betting the future on slower, more modest reform.

Take Broward County, the Florida county that used to rank No. 1 at sending students to their state’s juvenile justice system.

The stats troubled Broward County leaders, and they responded with a bold solution: Lower arrests by not making arrests.

After examining juvenile data, a local task force compiled 12 misdemeanor offenses that would no longer be considered police matters. Criminal mischief and vandalism, for example.

The results were quickly positive.

In 2011-12, Broward County officers made 1,062 school-related arrests. That dropped to 392 in 2015-16, putting the rate of school-related arrests among the lowest in the state.

School district officials say the strategy allowed schools to respond more constructively to normal teenage behavior, without hurting police ability to respond to serious crime.

“We’re not compromising school safety. We’re really saving the lives of kids,” said Michaelle Valbrun-Pope, executive director of Student Support Initiatives for Broward County Public Schools.

Large districts across the country, including in Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have taken similar action. Pittsburgh Public Schools — which tallies more than 400 juvenile arrests annually and is roughly one-ninth the size of Broward County — is not among them.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet talks about the school-to-prison pipeline. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Instead, officials at Pittsburgh Public Schools tout recent efforts to lower suspensions and expulsions, a separate disciplinary issue, by increasing social services and point to improved disciplinary guidance for administrators on when to call police for bad behavior.

“I wish we could talk about this three years from now,” said Chief George Brown, who heads the district’s safety department. “You’ll see in a good way that it’s starting to be reduced.”

For now, Pittsburgh’s school police respond when called. And they follow state law, which criminalizes behavior common in high schools across the commonwealth.

Abandoning arrests

The Broward County solution seems simple.

In reality though, it took about a year of work, deep dives into data and, most importantly, a coalition of stakeholders from various, often adversarial institutions involved in justice and education.

And it wasn’t an activist group spearheading change. The district itself led the conversation, with deep collaboration from local police and prosecutors, the public defender’s office and the state justice system.

“Let this be a collaborative initiative and not just something the school system is doing,” Valbrun-Pope advised districts that seek reforms.“The fact that everyone had input is what was key.”

The first step was to determine what that bad number — 1,062 school-related arrests — actually meant. Mostly (in fact, in about 70 percent of cases), the behavior was a misdemeanor. These are lower-level, nonviolent offenses that nonetheless funneled scores of students into the justice system.

The group identified 12 misdemeanor offenses, including judgment-call charges, like disorderly conduct, and more concrete behavior, like vandalism and possession of marijuana.

All are classified as nonviolent. Many are arrestable offenses in Pennsylvania, depending on the severity.

Then, the Broward County group collectively agreed that an arrest is no longer an appropriate response to these behaviors. And Valbrun-Pope considers that agreement the crucial part.

“We had firm commitment from everyone that when we faced the larger community, we were a collaborative,” she said.

In November 2013, the district published its official agreement, signed by the stakeholders, to say that school officials — not police — have jurisdiction over those nonviolent misdemeanors. Students who commit them are provided with counseling and restorative justice resources, not court dates.

But the system still has teeth. Students who fail to participate in programming, or who repeat offenses or commit felonies, go to the justice system, and Valbrun-Pope said few students offend again.

It’s a promising model, though similar agreements elsewhere took years of pressure from local activist groups.

In Denver, the school superintendent and chief of police signed a memorandum much like Broward County did in February 2013. That was a victory for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a local organization advocating racial and education equity.

But they’d been fighting racial disparities for years, first securing changes to the district’s suspension and expulsion policy in 2008, then securing a change in state law in 2012 that increased disciplinary discretion in schools. The following year, Denver’s education and law enforcement officials agreed that minor offenses no longer needed city police to show up and make arrests.

“The role of the officer is not to be a disciplinarian. Their role is to de-escalate,” said Daniel Kim, state organizing director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos in Colorado.

A thousand miles to the southwest, activist Manuel Criollo describes a similar years-long fight in Los Angeles.

More than 400 sworn officers serve the Los Angeles Unified School District, and under community pressure, the district signed an agreement to outline specific offenses that no longer call for police intervention.

Progress, yes. But he’s troubled that police are in schools to begin with.

“It raises questions about what kind of society do you live in where you have to win the idea that it’s not OK to be ticketing or arresting 12 year olds,” said Criollo, organizing director for the Labor/Community Strategy Center.

Could reform work here?

In Pittsburgh, Chief Brown and Superintendent Anthony Hamlet support reducing arrests. If local policy can be changed, they’ll consider it, but they can’t remove charges from state law.

“If the PA code says this is required,” Hamlet said, “then his hands are tied. My hands are tied.”

Kevin Bethel, a 29-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, has a mission to drastically reduce school-based arrests. (Photo by Chloe Elmer/PublicSource)

But in Philadelphia, Kevin Bethel didn’t see that problem.

A former deputy commissioner, Bethel spent 29 years with the Philadelphia Police Department and most recently supervised patrols across Philadelphia, including officers responsible for school arrests. What he saw — students bearing the trauma and embarrassment of arrest and being funneled into the justice system with no benefit to public safety — left him deeply troubled.

“I always ask people, ‘Do you know what you’re doing when you send them to me?’” Bethel said of his law enforcement role. “We put these kids in the system, and they’re never getting out.”

So he reconsidered the vast contribution the Philadelphia Police Department made to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. After looking into the department’s legal obligations, he saw that, yes, officers must respond to calls, but he didn’t see a reason they were required to take someone away in handcuffs.

At his urging, the department empowered officers to use much more discretion when deciding if an arrest makes sense.

“We do a $25 ticket for marijuana in our city,” Bethel said. For a student on school grounds, “that was a misdemeanor that resulted in an arrest, a fingerprinting, a photographing and a court case.”

Pittsburgh has the same marijuana fine, but state criminal code classifying it as a misdemeanor applies on school grounds.

Now Bethel runs the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program as a fellow of the Stoneleigh Foundation. Under his supervision, arrests dropped from 1,580 arrests in the 2013-14 school year to 724 the next year.

In lieu of arrest, students are sent to social services, taking advantage of existing programs in the city. Again, the program applies to lower level offenses, nonviolent behavior that research shows is criminalized when it’s committed by students of color and is considered normal teenage behavior for white youth.

In the most recent school year, Bethel said arrests dropped to 500.

“It remains to be seen if it’s working,” said Brown of the Philly program. But he wasn’t aware of the details of Bethel’s program when questioned about it recently.

But Brown works closely with Shawn Forbes, assistant chief probation officer for Allegheny County Juvenile Probation. Forbes calls the Philadelphia program a national model. And he has ambitions of bringing the idea across the state as part of a team that attended juvenile justice reform training at Georgetown University last year.

“The notion is, he wants to work himself out of the job,” said Hamlet, who was not aware of Philadelphia’s approach. “I agree.”

A staffer from Pittsburgh Public Schools responsible for the district’s restorative justice initiative visited Bethel’s program, along with Forbes. That staffer, though, recently resigned.

District support is crucial because Forbes only sees kids after they’ve been arrested. He can’t keep police from sending them his way.

“This is change at their level. This is nothing I can direct…” Forbes said. “We need police to be on board not to arrest these kids and charge them and penetrate them to our level.”

So if he wants to enact a Pittsburgh version, he’ll need the blessing of police and local school officials. It’s unclear if Pittsburgh officials will buy into the details, but Brown said he had recently been accepted to a September cohort of the Georgetown University training.

Meanwhile, Brown is hopeful less radical changes will bring the district’s juvenile arrest tally below its recent total of 445. Officials emphasize the importance of restorative justice practices and counseling to reduce suspensions and expulsions, and those initiatives could also reduce arrests.

Impure solutions

Broward County, a far larger district, is already well below our tally, but Valbrun-Pope knows there’s still work to be done.

She still sees a troubling racial disparity in arrests. Even if numbers are lower overall, officials are struggling to figure out how to reduce the racial disparity. Los Angeles has the same problem.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, senior policy advocate Harold Jordan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania called the reforms a mixed bag.

The diversion program is “a big step” in the right direction, he said. But it doesn’t get to the deeper debate of whether police should be in schools to begin with.

“There’s this public perception that if we remove the police officers everything will go crazy,” Jordan said. “Even if they weren’t going crazy before the police officers were there.”

And implementing reforms takes more than finding a program to copy. It’s a matter of getting each part of the justice system to agree that change is needed and finding services to replace the handcuffs.

“You have to champion this,” Bethel said. “It won’t happen by itself. We’ve been mired in this place for three decades now.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

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25 replies on “These districts fought the school-to-prison pipeline. Can Pittsburgh learn their lessons?”

  1. Not only that but he flooded the streets with cops. You couldn’t walk a block or two without bumping into one. Same goes for a place like Tokyo with tons of police and cameras (never mind the fact their culture is very disciplined and peaceful). Can’t really commit many crimes with cops are everywhere.

  2. This program in Broward County appears to have killed two teachers and 15 students this month. Good going, you saved some aspiring young criminals from “bearing the trauma and embarrassment of arrest and being funneled into the justice system.” Too bad that one of them was Nikolas Cruz. Go pat yourselves on the backs, Broward County school officials, look what you accomplished here.

  3. Are you off you’re rocker.As per your comment,just because local government officials don’t want local law enforcement,the county court system,juvenile criminal services ,and the school district burdened with numerous arrests for crimes by juveniles they decide to not prosecute people whom would have been previously prosecuted thus undermining the rest of the system that was put in place.For example had they not adopted this “Turn the other cheek policy” Nikolus Cruz would have been flagged in a background check and he would not have been able to buy the firearm in the first place.In the second place he would have most likely received the care he needed for the obvious mental disorder.Now factor in the rest of the facts,1) his background check had no information regarding his previous mental issues,there for authorizing purchase of a firearm. 2)FBI completely and without doubt dropped the ball on a tip they received regarding statements and photos posted by the shooter on his own facebook page,AND claimed they couldn’t identify the poster on his own page. 2)local law enforcement not only didn’t identify the pattern of behavior in even 1 or nearly 40 calls to his residence for everything from threatening family members with weaponry, killing animals,cutting himself and attempting to harm others,but in doing nothing ensured that this troubled kid could could buy a firearm,and you want to ban weapons ,removing the rights of tens of millions of law abiding citizens to be able to protect not only themselves but others from people bent on doing harm. Now I suppose your going to tell me law enforcement keeps us safe.HAHAH!
    You my friend are either speaking before you are aware of the facts OR/
    you my friend are just stupid.
    Either way your opinion is invalid and moreover you’re nearly as dangerous to society as these clowns that adopted the policy of not prosecuting the juvenile crimes,and subsequently the law enforcement officials who knew the facts and chose to do nothing before and during the shooting.They created the perfect situation in which a person like Nikolas could do what he did and once it was happening neither the sheriff or his troupe of bozo’s would enter the building to save those kids and faculty.They have failed at absolutely every turn.
    Yet now that incompetent,criminally negligent boob wants to shout down the NRA and lawful firearms ownership. And he has you and other nit witts propagating the lie. A maneuver to avoid properly evaluating what went wrong and to insure that something like this happens again.Your repeating your emotionally based,fact free rhetoric does nothing to ensure anyone’s safety …as a matter of fact it ensures that this has a great chance to repeat itself in future.You wanna do something great for Humanity and Society in America,keep your irresponsible ideas and statements to yourself.They’re dangerous rubbish and noise drowning out the efforts of the informed that can make a difference and reign in the violence.You sir/maddam,whatever it happens to be are a perfect example of an idiot too lazy to educate themselves to the real reasons this happens therefor rendering yourself patently false and the world would be a better place without your laziness and lies.
    You’ll never be as ashamed of your ignorance as I am embarrassed for you and those like you.May you all rot in a place where lies don’t hurt anyone.

  4. In the early 90s, Giuliani brought the “Broken Windows” method of policing to NYC. The rationale being that small crimes lead to bigger crimes, broken windows lead criminals to believe that “the law” doesn’t care, so they’re emboldened to commit larger crimes.

    Guess what? It worked! Crime in NYC plummeted!

    These naive, ‘feel good’ policies are the EXACT OPPOSITE of that in their school system.

  5. Good job guys, this policy had a direct affect on allowing the maniac in Parkland to walk free and eventual murder people.

    The fact that the left can somehow argue that people who are sent to jail are “victims” is truly proof positive that liberalism is a mental disorder.

  6. If you think we should disarm the 99.999% of law abiding gun owners, because Broward County used Progressive policies to allow this to happen, think again Snowflake.

  7. WOW!!!
    “We’re not compromising school safety. We’re really saving the lives of kids,” said Michaelle Valbrun-Pope, executive director of Student Support Initiatives for Broward County Public Schools.‘

    I wonder if she STILL has this attitude?

  8. “I wish we could talk about this three years from now,” said Chief George Brown, who heads the district’s safety department. “You’ll see in a good way that it’s starting to be reduced.”

    I am ready to talk about this, Mr. Brown.

  9. “In lieu of arrest, students are sent to social services, taking advantage of existing programs in the city. Again, the program applies to lower level offenses, nonviolent behavior that research shows is criminalized when it’s committed by students of color and is considered normal teenage behavior for white youth.”
    That is B.S. The “students of color” are doing something IN ADDITION to the original charges.
    White youth are NOT getting a pass. They’re just not ruining their chances of light punishment.

  10. They can arrest teens, they just chose not to. When people called in to report that Cruz was a nutcase looking to kill people, the police didn’t want to ruin Cruz’s life by arresting him so just moved on to the next case.

    Kids shouldn’t be arrested for yelling at teachers. God knows my kids were rebellious in school. But anything that will get a person arrested outside of school should be treated the same inside. A high school student punching a teacher and breaking her jaw is criminal assault, not a ten-day suspension.

    These politicians may have started off with noble intentions but soon they had created a culture of ignoring criminal behavior in order to make their stats look better.

  11. Hopefully, the author of this piece, wrote it to actually point out how flawed the thinking is. If the author supports the ridiculous policies put forth, then there he/she is more part of the problem.


  13. Philly 4 star football recruit busted last year for armed robbery. ( 13 K ). I guess he thought officer Bethel had his back.

  14. WHY? Why would you want to do this to our city? Oh yes – i forgot how nutty progressive you are. Its easier to hide the truth in order to make you (ie politicians in charge) look good,. YOU are part of the problem, not the solution.

  15. Is this what is being sold to cities all over? Basically, the local political structure, along with the local School Board tries to take criminal matters into their own hands, by colluding with high end Police officials. Becoming Judge and Jury to re-write the rules on what a “student” should be arrested for, what his penalty should be, etc. This policy sounds like one cooked up in order to alter crime statistics using a flawed ideology. Why did this not set off red flags after the statement about ” Lowering arrests by not making arrests” ? Do people not see how problematic this will be in 5 to 10 years?

  16. “The stats troubled Broward County leaders, and they responded with a bold solution: Lower arrests by not making arrests.”

    Good Lord!

  17. This program is a failure. It mostly gives criminals A PASS. The shooter in Parkland Nikolas Cruz got dozens of “diversions”and thus with no arrests was allowed to buy and keep his guns.

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