Target 11: Where have all the Pittsburgh school police officers gone?

PITTSBURGH — The district’s police force has been cut in half from 24 officers to 12, and that move has some people raising questions and concerns about school safety.

Some officers retired, while others moved on to better paying job. Meanwhile, the district can’t find anyone to fill the vacant positions.

“I knew they were down, but I didn’t know they were down that much,” said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Esposito-Visgitis expressed concern after we told her that the number of school police officers had been cut in half to 12.

“You have 12 officers for 52 buildings. Is that a concern?” asked Target 11 investigator Rick Earle.

“(It’s a) tremendous concern to me. We are in a really bad situation because we need our school police. We want every one of our students and staff to be safe,” said Esposito-Visgitis.

The district also has lost a handful of security guards. They’re down to 66 now.

Along with school police, they’re responsible for the safety and security of 20,000 students in 52 buildings in a district that saw an uptick of violence last year, including fights and guns in schools.

“It does concern me because there’s more kids out there that need protection, so we need more than what they’re offering and giving us,” said Teresa Brown, a parent we spoke with at the district’s Book Bag Giveaway outside Acrisure Stadium on the North Side earlier this week.

The district sent the following statement to Target 11:

“Like industries across the country, law enforcement has additionally been impacted by staffing shortages. These shortages are impacting PPS as well. School safety is experiencing staff shortages in both security and school police officers. All calls for services will be prioritized. We are still able to provide immediate response to emergencies but do request patience in response to non-emergency issues. Currently, security staff are completing physical security readiness walk-throughs and reporting deficiencies to maintenance staff for repair.”

School police officers tell Target 11 some officers have left because of an effort by advocacy groups and several school board members to eliminate school police. They also said officers are concerned for their safety because they’re not allowed to carry guns.

“We have a few of our school board members cutting down our school police officers, making them feel like we should get rid of them, when our full staff totally support them,” said Esposito-Visgitis.

Two years ago, a number of organizations, including OnePA, called for the removal of school police at a protest at the district office.

“Policing our kids is not the way,” said Kathi Elliott, who attended the rally. “Criminalizing our kids has to stop.”

The advocacy organizations have accused school police of creating a pipeline to prison by targeting minority students and arresting and referring them to juvenile court at higher rates than other students.

Some parents we spoke with this week agree changes are needed.

“I would like to see the funding go into school counselors (and) psychological training programs that help children deal with their anxieties and stresses,” said Wendy Moss, a parent.

But at a recent summit on youth violence, a handful of students from a variety of schools across the Pittsburgh region had some surprising comments.

“We need more security. We need more police,” said one student.

“There needs to be more security. Students need to feel secure,” said another student.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey attended that summit. He was caught off guard by the comments about wanting more security and police in schools.

“Sometimes when you hear from advocacy groups, ... they talk about less police,” said Mayor Gainey. “What I heard from our kids today is that they want to see more police because that’s how they feel safe in schools.”

Target 11 reached out to OnePA but didn’t hear back. Target 11 also contacted the three school board members who’ve suggested eliminating school police. One board member responded and said the district has not voted to reduce security staff.

While that is true, the district has been unable to find replacements for the school police officers who have left the district.

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