Community leaders call for change at University Prep after brawl involving 30 girls

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PITTSBURGH - Extra police were on hand at University Prep High School in Pittsburgh’s Hill District Tuesday, one day after a large fight involving 30 girls sent the school into a lockdown.

The Hill District Education Council Board of Directors and the Hill District Ministers Alliance invited community leaders and parents to a press conference Tuesday afternoon, calling for change at the school.

“Right now, most people consider the name of this school a joke. It is not preparatory for the university as much as it is preparatory for the penitentiary,” Sala Udin, of the Hill District Education Council, said.

During the press conference, the Pittsburgh school board and its superintendent were called out for underfunding and understaffing University Prep.

“There is always blame cast upon bad students, bad homes, bad families. But the issue is it’s a bad system, and unless you address the system, it doesn't matter who you bring in here, there's going to be failure. There's going to be no academic success,” the Rev. Victor Grisby said.

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Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane held her first of many discussions with University Prep staff about safety on Tuesday morning.

“We're going to be talking with our teachers and talking about what else they need from us to support them and the principal as well,” Lane said.

While it was initially thought that Monday’s fight started over a boy, an investigation showed it was an ongoing dispute between students from the city's Garfield and Hill District neighborhoods, district spokesperson Ebony Pugh said.

“I think young people can attend schools with people who live in a different neighborhood. We're not talking about some situation where we can't talk to each other because I live in the Hill and you live in Garfield,” Lane said.

According to Pugh, all the students involved were sent home Monday and will face charges from a magistrate. Additional school and city police were at the high school Tuesday, Pugh confirmed.

School police are reviewing surveillance video to make sure they correctly identified those involved in the fight.

Charmaine Demus was brought to tears Monday when she received a phone call from her panicking 17-year-old daughter.

“My daughter says if she leaves the school right now, they will arrest her,” Demus said.

Demus and dozens of other parents rushed to the school to get their children, but they had to wait for the lockdown to be lifted.

“I was locked in a basement office because there was so much chaos,” said a parent who didn’t want to be identified. “They had Pittsburgh police in riot gear, and this is supposed to be an educational facility.”  

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Channel 11 sources said several teachers tried jumping in to stop the fight and some suffered minor injuries. Channel 11’s Rick Earle reported that a school police officer, security guard and a teacher were among those checked out by a doctor for possible injuries. 

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Most of those involved suffered minor injuries. One student was taken to the hospital to be treated for an asthma attack. 

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Pugh said classes resumed normally as soon as the students who were involved were removed from school property.  

Students in grades six through 12 attend the school.

The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation said having more police is a great first step, but more needs to be done to protect students. 

Hours after the fight, the organization sent a letter to Pittsburgh Public Schools, saying there were rising tensions at the school previously. 

In October, a student was busted with bags of suspected heroin. In October 2014, there was an arrest after a fight at the school, and in that same month, the principal was hit in the head.

Rick Swartz, the executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said there need to be strategies in place to restore order in the school and talk about its long-term future. 

"We're very active and aggressive in not giving up on these kids. If the district brushes this under the rug and says this is a byproduct of a fight, I think that's dismissing in a much too arbitrary manner,” he said.

Swartz told Channel 11 News that his organization is trying figure out if any of the students in Monday’s fight are involved in programs at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.

Lane responded to the letter. The district released her response, which reads, in part:

"While we do appreciate support from our community, we also believe that this is our responsibility, and I am sure the board agrees. We will provide additional plans to them, possibly seeking board action, in the very near future."