Target 11 Investigates calls to eliminate school police during uptick in violence

PITTSBURGH — A student outside Oliver Academy was shot and killed while getting on a school van. Another student was armed with a loaded handgun inside Carrick high school. And another student was suspected of hiding a gun outside Westinghouse Academy.

This uptick in violence is happening as some social justice organizations have been calling for the elimination of school police and security in Pittsburgh public schools. School police and security do not carry weapons.

“They don’t physically need to be in the schools,” said Ghadah Mokashi, of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mokashi helped author a recent report on school arrests in Allegheny county. The report claims school police in Pittsburgh have contributed to what the ACLU and others have called a school-to-prison pipeline by overpolicing and arresting black students at four times the rate of white students. And the ACLU is calling for more support staff and less police.

They said that model has worked in districts in other cities, and it can work in Pittsburgh.

“For the districts and the teachers that said they proactively initiated more social workers, more counselors really trying to connect with their students from the beginning and getting to know them, they actually found decreases. They found better behavior,” said Mokashi.

But after a wave of violence since the beginning of the school year, including multiple fights at several Pittsburgh high schools, students with loaded guns in or near schools and the deadly shooting of a student outside Oliver Academy, some are calling for more school police officers, not less.

“There needs to be some change made, and reducing police is not going to effect the changes needed to protect these kids from when they go on to school,” said Eric Pettus, who says his cousin was attacked by the same student at Brashear High School four times.

During the most recent attack that was caught on cell phone video, the teen was flipped on his head and then repeatedly stomped on. The student who allegedly attacked him was charged with aggravated assault. Eighteen-year-old Quincey Garland now faces a preliminary hearing on the accusations.

Pettus said his cousin suffered serious injuries to his head and neck and is still receiving medical treatment.

“Let these people watch those videos that I sent of my cousin being assaulted and after watching those videos, if they still feel that there’s not a need for police in the school. I’d really like to have some forum or what have you to sit down with these folks and understand what they’re thinking,” said Pettus.

And perhaps just as troubling, Target 11 has obtained multiple Facebook images of teenagers armed with guns.

Law enforcement sources have confirmed that they are all currently students in the Pittsburgh public school district.

Earle questioned the ACLU about this.

“This is now going beyond just fighting and fisticuffs. We’re talking about weapons that can kill people. Are you worried that if we don’t have security and police there, that somebody is going to be killed?” Earle asked.

“So, city police are armed? Right,” responded Mokashi.

“But it takes them a while to get there,” said Earle.

And it’s not just the ACLU, but One Pa and a coalition of social justice groups along with several school board members have said it’s time to pull police and security out of the schools.

“It would be awful, and it would leave our teachers to do all of the security and they need time to teach,” said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

She is calling for more school police and security guards.

Since 2000, according to district sources, the number of school police and security guards has been cut in half from 192 to 86.

“We did a survey of our members about support for police officers, and it was off the charts, people support our police officers. They are incredible and well-trained. I hope parents would contact their board members to just quell this ridiculous movement,” said Esposito-Visgitis.

We reached out to every school board member, and we did hear back from a few, who are speaking out about the recent uptick in violence for the very first time.

Here are their responses.

“The board is very concerned about the uptick in post pandemic violence in some PPS schools,. The board is inclined to respond by increasing the presence of counselors and social workers and more adults and out-of-school time providers. The school district security personnel are doing a remarkable job and we have confidence in their continued professional response to these incidents. There is nothing before the board regarding elimination of school police at this time,” said Board President Sala Udin.

“My position has always been to support our School Safety Staff. They are a valuable resource that helps our district to maintain a safe learning environment,” said Board Member Bill Gallagher.

“I am aware of the efforts by some to reduce or eliminate school police and security. I don’t support that effort at this time because I have not seen evidence of how that will keep our students, staff, and schools safe. It is important to base decisions on facts and evidence, not politics. School security play an essential role in our schools and by extension the school police also have a role in ensuring we have safe schools. I feel confident that the administration is doing everything they can to ensure that our schools have to resources to facilitate safe learning environments. More police or security staff may not be the answer in my opinion, but neither is removing them completely,” said Board Member Gene Walker.

Target 11 also received a statement from the interim PPS superintendent:

“School Police are a part of our school safety department and play an invaluable role in our comprehensive approach to school safety. While they work to support student and staff safety inside and outside our facilities, their impact is far-reaching beyond normalized views of their work, including mentorship, relationship building and service as trusted adults,” said Dr. Wayne Walters.

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