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Profiling of Black Girls in PA

POSTED: September 23, 2020, 4:00 pm

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In 2011, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr. was sentenced to 28 years in prison for a bribery scandal that came to be known as “Kids for Cash.” The judge was found to have taken $1 million in bribes from private developers of juvenile detention centers. Ciavarella then used his position on the bench to send juveniles to those detention centers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out 4,000 convictions issued by Ciavarella over a 5-year period, 2003 through 2008, claiming the judge violated the constitutional rights of juveniles, notably the right to legal counsel and the right to ‘intelligently’ enter a plea. Prior to this conviction, Ciavarella had been tried and convicted on racketeering charges.

The “Kids for Cash” scandal highlighted the perilous status of juveniles in the criminal justice system, and how easy it is for children and young people to become victims in the system. Public school students are just as vulnerable as data across the country highlight the ‘school to prison pipeline’ and the degree to which school discipline policies and procedures disproportionately impact Black girls and boys. This is the case in Pennsylvania and shadows the behavior of convicted judge Mark Ciavarella in abusing the rights of juveniles. A new report released by the Black Girls Equity Alliance, Understanding and Addressing Institutionalized Inequity: Disrupting Pathways to Juvenile Justice for Black Youth in Allegheny County paints a sobering picture of the reality facing Black youth in public schools.

The report details how Allegheny County disproportionately refers Black girls and boys to the juvenile justice system in far greater numbers than other jurisdictions across the country. The local referral rates are significantly higher than the national rates for Black youth (23% higher for Black boys and 56% higher for Black girls) while 46% lower for White boys and 57% lower for White girls. Black girls are 10 times more likely than White girls, and Black boys are 7 times more likely than White boys to be refereed to juvenile justice. This disproportionately is particularly egregious when you consider that local Black youth are referred at higher rates than Black youth nationally, and local White youth are referred at lower rates than White youth nationally.

While local police are often seen as most likely to engage with Black youth and make a referral to the juvenile justice system, that is not the case in Allegheny County. The Pittsburgh Public Schools police make the most referrals of Black girls to the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County. The overwhelming majority of the arrests made by school police are for minor offenses that are subjective in nature and involve the officer’s discretion. In 2019, 54% of the arrests made of Black girls and 42% of the arrests made of Black boys resulted in a criminal charge of ‘disorderly conduct,’ a charge that is often leveled due to racial bias. To make matters worse, Black students with disabilities are frequently referred to the juvenile justice system by the Pittsburgh Public Schools police. Of the 57% of Pittsburgh Public Schools referrals for which data is available, 45% of Black boys referred during the academic years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Overall, in Pittsburgh, Black boys are 9 times more likely than White boys, and Black girls 11 times more likely than White girls, to be arrested. In 2019, 66% of Black girls arrests in Pittsburgh were made by the Pittsburgh Public Schools police. Pittsburgh Public Schools arrest students at 8 times the rate of the Philadelphia Public Schools, a larger school district. Pittsburgh students are referred to law enforcement at rates higher than youth in 95% of other large cities in the United States according to the findings in a 2019 report by the Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission.

The racial profiling of Black girls behavior takes many shapes and forms in public schools and Black girls are often penalized for behavior for which their White peers face no repercussions. In many instances the simple act of voicing their opinion in class or ‘body language’ often causes Black girls to face removal from a classroom as teachers brand their actions as ‘hostile’ or ‘disruptive.’ The same can be said for the policing of Black girls’ dress and hair, and deeming such ‘inappropriate’ while no such screening is applied to White girls. The arbitrary nature of how discipline is applied in schools and the subjective nature of how decisions are made when police are called into the school building puts Black girls, and Black youth in general at-risk. This is all the more case in school buildings with few Black teachers and administrators. The use of a ‘disorderly conduct’ charge could simply be a smokescreen for behavior that falls within the realm of normal teenager conduct. Yet, when applied to Black girls it becomes a criminal charge that results in a referral to the juvenile justice system and the possibility of the student having their academic studies disrupted by a conviction. It is the cojoining of the school ‘push out’ crisis and the school to prison pipeline. For example, Black youth are 10 times more likely than White youth to be referred to juvenile court for failure to pay a fine resulting from a summary citation. When police issue a summary citation, a youth is required to appear before a district magistrate judge. There is a plethora of reasons a student might not make a court appearance, including transportation and family responsibilities. However, a student can be tried in absentia and under the law, are not provided a lawyer when appearing before a district magistrate.

The Black Girls Equity Alliance makes several recommendations to address the disproportionality in the treatment of Black girls in public schools. First, the Alliance recommends greater transparency in the reporting of referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system, aggregated by race, gender and disability. The Alliance also calls for the elimination of the charge of ‘disorderly conduct’ in schools’ codes of conduct. The group also calls for a moratorium on summary citations being issued at school. Similar to advocates in other jurisdictions, the Alliance is calling for the removal of police from schools and assurances that school building and school district policies are structured to prevent the criminalization of Black youth.

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