The ACLU of Pennsylvania saw a number of successes in the area of school policing in 2020, despite this unprecedented and unexpected year. The global pandemic created mass disruption in the lives of students and families. School districts were forced to make decisions about which children they would educate, and how, and whether to continue to discipline students when they were no longer at school. 

While schools across the country tried to navigate how to deliver education from a distance, it was the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis that had the greatest impact on our work. More school communities than ever before came to question the presence of police in schools and to challenge police violations of student privacy rights. Although our advocacy shifted to the virtual arena, we were primed to play a leading role in these struggles because of the foundation laid in almost a decade of working to reform school discipline. 

Leading up to 2020, our work had focused on helping education leaders make sound policy decisions about school policing and security, decisions that help create better environments for all members of the school community and that promote student success. At the end of 2019 we published a report, Police and Pennsylvania’s Schools: What Education Leaders Need to Know

The report captured dialogues we had with school district leaders in Pennsylvania at two of our school policing summits, which brought together senior administrators and board members from 42 Pennsylvania school districts. One result of these conversations was that the superintendent of Woodland Hills, James Harris, made several policy changes to reduce arrests and referrals of students. Perhaps the most significant policy change was cancelling the district’s contract with local police and the removal of “school resource officers” from district schools.

With the closure of public schools in March, school officials were left to grapple with how to apply school discipline rules, both to students who had discipline infraction allegations pending and to students generally, in the virtual environment. Rather than seeking to avoid punitive or exclusionary consequences with the understanding that students have already had their education disrupted in so many ways due to COVID-19, many school districts tried to enforce existing policies in students’ homes or created new ones specific to e-learning. Our publication, School Discipline in the Era of COVID-19, helped spark a national debate about discipline practices during school closures. 

As with in-person learning, this resulted in students, mostly Black and brown students and students with disabilities, being expelled or suspended from school for minor behavior, such as the 9-year-old suspended for “bombarding” her school’s tech support with questions, or the 12-year-old who had police called on him when his nerf gun briefly appeared on a Zoom call. 

Some school districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools, were preparing to adopt similar policies. In response, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, along with parents and community members, recommended that the school board remove punitive language and amend the weapon policy. The board listened and voted to adopt several of the recommendations we made to amend the weapons policy, and to remove students from virtual learning only in rare circumstances.

Public concern about school policing is not simply an invention of the post-George Floyd moment. It has been growing for several years, as the numbers and roles of school security, including sworn law enforcement, has dramatically increased since the 1990s. Ironically, this security presence began to increase during a period of time in which juvenile crime (crimes committed by juvenile and crimes committed against juveniles) was on the decline.

On September 14, 2020, we released a report in collaboration with the Black Girls Equity Alliance (BGEA) entitled: Understanding and Addressing Institutionalized Inequity: Disrupting Pathways to Juvenile Justice for Black Youth in Allegheny County. This report builds on the work we have done and highlights the disproportionality of arrests, referrals, and summary citations of those students within Allegheny County with a focus on Pittsburgh Public Schools. Through this report we were able to show that what happens in the Pittsburgh School District is a reflection of what is happening in the city and is a driver of what is happening at the county level. 

To further this conversation, we participated on a number of virtual panels, including one with the Black Girls Equity Alliance in June, Make Black Lives Matter at School Panel, where we discussed the arrest, referral and citation rates in Allegheny County and what schools can do to make Black Lives Matter. Building on that dialogue, we participated in several other panels looking at policing in schools and the impact of COVID-19 on school discipline.

Another longstanding concern of the ACLU of Pennsylvania has been the expansion of police contact with students who have posed no real threat to a school community. One process, known as “threat assessment,” allows police to investigate students, including accessing a broad range of personal information from school records. The expansion of threat assessment as a routine school safety tool has been swift, with little thought given to the ramifications for youth rights. 

In March 2020, we published an analysis of the practice, The Risks of Threat Assessment to Students Are Dire, which argued that the practice, when misapplied, can undermine the basic civil rights and liberties of students who pose no real threat to the school community, with particularly harsh consequences for students of color and students with disabilities.

In late 2020, we assisted the Tampa Bay Times with an investigation of a Florida program which allowed the sheriff’s office to use personal information from public agencies to put together a secret list of students it considers to be future criminals. A school district sharing student records with law enforcement is an apparent violation of federal student privacy laws. 

The ACLU of Pennsylvania was a leading voice in explaining the privacy implications to a national audience in Education Week, Using Student Data to Identify Future Criminals: A Privacy Debacle. ACLU-PA staff also served on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s working group on threat assessment.

The COVID-related delay in reopening schools has also given districts more time to plan for changing school policing arrangements that go into effect once in-person attendance resumes. 

However, there is a danger that symbolic reform (such as keeping police, but taking away their traditional uniforms) will subvert the drive for meaningful change. 

We need to be extra-vigilant in our work to demand change and accountability in 2021 and beyond.