What level of access should city police have to Pittsburgh schools?

If city police should be able to arrest students in school for past or off-campus allegations has been a sticking point for the district board and education advocates.

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Police officers from Pittsburgh Public Schools and city police attended a fall 2018 school board meeting that focused on the possibility of arming officers on school campuses. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh school board will vote next month on a revised memorandum of understanding between the district and Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that appears to give city officers less authority to arrest students at school for past offenses than a previously proposed memorandum.

The revised MOU was on the agenda at the board agenda review meeting on Wednesday and originally slated for a vote at the Sept. 24 legislative meeting.

But board member Moira Kaleida asked that the vote be delayed until the Oct. 23 legislative meeting to allow for 30 days of comment from the public.

The district will hold hearings on Sept. 23 and Oct. 21 at which the public can comment on the proposed MOU.

The district and city police do not have an active MOU at present. An MOU with municipal police is required under the state School Code, but the Pittsburgh district has been working without one since 2011.

The proposed MOU calls for city police and school police to “consider the reasonableness” of arresting a student in school. Among the considerations listed in the MOU are: whether the arrest is in response to a school-related offense; the seriousness of the offense; if there is an imminent threat to public safety; and, if the officer is able to arrest by other means.

The MOU states that school police have original jurisdiction over incidents occurring on school property and that city police have jurisdiction on incidents that occur off of school property. But it allows for Pittsburgh police to be first responders in some incidents on school property.

The issue of Pittsburgh police being permitted to arrest students in school for offenses committed in the past or off of school grounds had been a sticking point in negotiations over the MOU. Negotiations have taken place between the district and the Pittsburgh police since the summer of 2018.

The board was poised to vote on an earlier version of the MOU, which gave Pittsburgh Police more authority to make arrests in school buildings, at its May 22 meeting. But the MOU was pulled from the agenda in response to objections from board members, the ACLU and the Education Law Center.

District solicitor Ira Weiss said since May the Pittsburgh Police have “agreed to a significant number of requests from the school district and addressed the concerns of the stakeholders.”

He said a meeting was held in July with district officials and representatives from groups that had voiced opposition, including the ACLU, Education Law Center, Education Rights Network and the Local Task Force for the Right to Education,

“The reality is the police have to have the material to do their jobs. I believe this agreement protects both the students and the police,” Weiss said.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich has signed the MOU, Weiss said.

Cheryl Kleiman, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center, said the revised MOU “is a significant improvement over the previous versions.”

She was pleased with the updated guidance on when students can be arrested at school and the shorter list of offenses for which Pittsburgh police would be called to school property, school activities and school buses.

The list includes such offenses as possessing a weapon on school property, aggravated assault, sexual assault, rape, terroristic threats and threats related to mass destruction. Other offenses include harassment and stalking and institutional vandalism.

Removed from the list in the previous MOU is the sale or use of tobacco products on school property, drug-related incidents and the possession or consumption of alcohol by anyone under age 21.

Kleiman said she is concerned the language over privacy isn’t strong enough to protect the rights of students and parents and wishes there had been an opportunity for parents to provide input.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA] protects student information, including education, discipline and health records and personal and family information. But the MOU allows district officials to share student information with Pittsburgh police in some instances, including if there is a threat to student safety. Still, the MOU states information must be kept confidential by Pittsburgh police.

Another area of concern to Kleiman is the section that refers to notification of parents whose students become involved in incidents at school with police.

The MOU states that police will give the student’s parents or guardians “a reasonable amount of time” to get to school before the student can be interrogated, unless it is determined by the law enforcement authority that doing so would cause an unnecessary delay in an ongoing investigation by law enforcement.”

Kleiman said it’s uncertain how much time parents would be given to get to school. She would also like to see a provision that a child could choose another responsible adult in the event that parents don’t come.

She pointed out that some parents may choose to stay away because they have their own issues with police, such as being undocumented.

Under the MOU, when Pittsburgh police are called to the scene of an active incident, they will help to stabilize the situation, provide emergency medical treatment if needed, conduct an investigation and secure physical evidence. They will then confer with school police about their further involvement in the situation.

Pittsburgh police carry firearms. School police do not.

Last fall, the school board rejected a request by school police to carry firearms because they said they believed guns would change the atmosphere in the schools and endanger Black students and students with disabilities.

The MOU states that school police should help to prevent “delinquent acts” by using preventative measures “including referrals to support services, diversionary programs, restorative practices, school-wide positive behavior supports, education and deterrence.”

The MOU states that city police may be called to investigate incidents on school property, including school buses, but that those investigations should involve as little disruption as possible to the school environment. Apprehension of student offenders should, if possible, take place “out of the sight and sound of other students.”

When notified of an incident, the decision to investigate and file charges “is at the sole discretion” of the city police, who may consult with school police. The MOU encourages city police to consult with the district attorney to determine whether to file charges. When appropriate, the MOU guides police to consider using a diversionary program in lieu of criminal charges.

Students with disabilities who have an Individualized Education Plan have some protections under the MOU. Under the agreement, district officials must notify the city police that the student has a disability and recommend in some cases the school, rather than Pittsburgh police, act to address the student’s behavior as required by federal and state law. But the Pittsburgh police reserve the right to investigate and file charges.

The MOU also calls for the district to share with police, by Sept. 30 of each year, blueprints or floor plans of all district buildings, along with an aerial photo, map or layout of the school campus. It also asks for locations of prospective command posts.

The district must also provide a current teacher/employee roster, student roster, most recent school yearbook, utility line information as well as school fire alarm and sprinkler shutoff locations and procedures.

The MOU calls for the agreement to be reviewed or re-executed in two years and every two years thereafter.

Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or mary@publicsource.org.

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