What often starts as a citation or fine can turn into a criminal record if left unpaid, which ends up hurting students.By Kristine Sorensen

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – A survey on the criminalization of Black young people in Allegheny County has some shocking results. One of the key findings is that black girls are ten times more likely than white girls to be referred to juvenile justice in Allegheny County.

The Black Girls Equity Alliance analyzed data for the last four years and found systemic reasons Black girls are ending up in the juvenile justice system, which can then affect them for years to come, and it also provided suggestions for solutions.

Part of being a teenager is making mistakes, but this study found that typical teenage behavior can follow Black girls in Allegheny County for years when minor infractions, like vaping on campus or obscene language, can land them in the criminal justice system. Black youth, locally, are referred at higher rates than they are nationally to juvenile justice, and white young people are referred at lower rates here than nationally.

“When you can’t find any other differential reason but race, it is racially motivated, and there’s the implicit biases that permeate all of our systems,” says Kathi Elliott, CEO of Gwen’s Girls and the convener of the study.

The study also found that Pittsburgh Public Schools police are the largest juvenile justice referral source for Black girls in the county and that they refer students to law enforcement more than in 95% of other similar cities.

Sara Goodkind, associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, says, “If there’s a police officer down the hall, you’re more likely to call them than if you have to call outside the school and instead call the principal or a counselor.”

The study suggests reallocating funds for school police to hire additional school counselors and psychologists. Counselors are also more equipped to help students with disabilities, who make up more than half of PPS juvenile justice referrals.

What often starts as a citation or a fine, if left unpaid, can become a criminal record, and that hurts the students when trying to get a job or in the military.

“Young people make mistakes and don’t have good judgement. Their brains are not fully developed yet, and so I think we need, as a society, to just really be thinking about how we respond to young people,” Goodkind adds.

Everyone is invited to a Town Hall Meeting about this topic on Thursday, Sept. 17, from 3-5 p.m. on Zoom. You can register here.

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Kristine Sorensen