The event was hosted by a collective of organizations, including One Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, 1Hood, and ACLU of Pennsylvania. Around 150 protesters gathered, through intermittent downpours, to hear speakers discuss issues from unjust suspensions to in-school arrests of Black and Brown students.
While the topics were serious, there was a lighthearted atmosphere to the gathering, as a DJ blasted music, people danced in the rain, and a group flapped a parachute that read "fund schools not prisons."
Organizers spoke about the importance of not criminalizing Black students for minor infractions, like wearing a uniform incorrectly, and encouraged the use of guidance counselors and social workers who can help students work through their issues. The collective called for removal of the 20 Pittsburgh police officers that are stationed in PPS.
Speakers encouraged PPS to take the money that is allocated for funding security and police to instead spend it on services to improve the school environment for students, like counselors, more diverse curriculums, and new computers.
A representative from the ACLU of Pennsylvania noted that efforts to diversify the police presence in Pittsburgh schools has not ameliorated the number of altercations police have with students. According to the ACLU, over 80% of students arrested in 2019 were Black, even though Black students make up 53% of the PPS student body. A 2019 study from the ACLU found that most school arrests "results in a referral to the juvenile justice system," which can alter the trajectory of a student's life. Police in Pittsburgh schools also issue citations 1.6 times more often than city police.
Several students activists spoke about their experience in Pittsburgh schools, like watching friends and family get arrested or getting arrested themselves. While the focus of the protest was Pittsburgh Public Schools, the issue also extends to colleges.
Miracle, an organizer with 1Hood who also spoke at the event and asked to go by her first name, says that she noticed a significant police presence when she was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, especially after the Tree of Life shooting.
"It starts in kindergarten but then the universities have police as well," says Miracle. "With defunding, we're actually taking away the need for these programs ... if people are healthy and happy and they have food and they have all their needs met, we already have the data that proves less violence happens. You're not gonna have the class disruptions, you're not gonna have the need for officers to be present."
1Hood got involved with the PPS protest after helping deliver a list of demands to Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald last week, which included a demand to remove police from schools.
Cheryl Kleiman, of the Education Law Center, spoke at the protest about how schools should be a "sanctuary" for students, referring to a 2017 resolution passed by the PPS board to protect immigrant students from immigration agents.
"We have multiple places that we need to work to address the criminalization of students," says Kleiman. "School police are intervening in instances that educators are better able to respond to, that social workers are better able to respond to ... the sanctuary school piece really focuses on the refugee immigrant students in Pittsburgh, but we know it's sanctuary in name only if Black and Brown students and students with disabilities are policed in schools."