Student Arrests in Pennsylvania: A Closer Look


School policing has become an issue of concern to students, parents, advocates, and even some school officials nationwide. From racial disparities in student arrests to the punishment of students under vague state laws such as “disturbing schools” and the announcement by federal officials that 1.6 million students attend public school with police and no counselors, the expanded police role in our nation’s public schools is receiving more scrutiny.

Recent media investigations, by Education Week and NBC News, highlight current trends and controversies about school policing. Early this year, Education Week published a series, “Policing America’s Schools.” A few weeks later, NBC News aired an even more insightful investigatory report, “Kids in Cuffs: An NBC News Investigation into Police Arrests of Children in Schools.” Local NBC affiliates produced companion pieces. In the Philadelphia area, NBC10 aired two segments, "Uneven Rates of Discipline in our Region" and "Changing the Narrative on School Discipline."

NBC and Education Week have provided interactive tools for exploring discipline data reported in the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2013-14 academic year, the most recent national data set available. We decided to use these tools to explore student arrest rates in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

What is the student arrest rate in Pennsylvania public schools? How does it compare to other states?

Some 5,161 students were arrested out of 1,742,477 students enrolled in Pennsylvania public schools. Pennsylvania ranked 6th in the nation out of 50 states and DC in the rate of student arrests. In 2012, Pennsylvania had the highest student arrest rate in the country, according to calculations we did based on earlier federal data.

Pennsylvania’s 2013-14 student arrest rate was more than twice that of the US overall. While only 1 out of every 714 students was arrested in the US, 1 out of every 337 Pennsylvania students was arrested.

Who is most likely to get arrested in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, Black students were four and a half times more likely to be arrested than White students. This rate is two and half times greater than the national rate for Black students. While Black students made up only 15% of student enrollment, they were 40% of the students arrested in Pennsylvania – a total of 2,074 Black students were arrested in 2013-14. In contrast, White students made up 69% of public students, but received 41% of student arrests.

To put this in context, Education Week found that nationwide Black students were disproportionately arrested in 43 states and DC. Black boys were at the highest risk of being arrested at school, three times as likely as their White male peers. And Black girls were more than one and a half times as likely as White boys to be arrested, the analysis shows. (The data tool does not allow comparison of White and Black girls.)

Nationwide, Hispanic students were one and a half times more likely to be arrested than White students; but in Pennsylvania they were 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than White students. Hispanic student enrollment was 9.5%, but received 13.4% of the student arrests.

What accounts for the differences in the arrest rates by race and ethnicity?

A variety of factors play into this question. The presence of school-based law enforcement correlates to racial and ethnic disparities in rates of arrest.

In “Black Students More Likely to Be Arrested at School,” Education Week reported that Black and Hispanic high school students were more likely than other students to attend school with on-site law enforcement officer. The disparity in the rates at which Black students (compared to other students) attend schools with law enforcement is even greater at the middle school level.

NBC found that “schools with officers were three times more likely to arrest students compared to schools without officers.” Examinations of police and court records by NBC revealed that law enforcement has become more involved in minor discipline infractions that would, in the past, have been addressed by school administrators.

Research on disparities in disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office and the use of out of school suspensions may provide additional insights. “Are Black Kids Worse? Myths and Facts about Racial Differences in Behavior,” a summary of existing research produced by scholars at Indiana University, concludes that “there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.” There appear to be few racial differences in the commission of the most serious offenses, ones that are likely considered zero tolerance policy violations (e.g., drugs, alcohol, weapons).

How often are students with disabilities arrested?

Nationally, students with disabilities were nearly three times more likely to be arrested than their non-disabled peers. Black students with disabilities were arrested at the highest rate compared to any other student group, with or without disabilities. Furthermore, NBC News found that Black students with disabilities were also nearly three times more likely to get arrested than White students with disabilities.

Pennsylvania fits the national pattern. It is in the top 30% of all states in the rate at which Black students with disabilities were arrested. Pennsylvania students with disabilities were two times as likely to get arrested than students without disabilities. Black students with disabilities were four times more likely to get arrested than White students with disabilities.

NBC also found that students with disabilities were punished in ways other than being arrested. For example, they were also 23 times more likely than their non-disabled peers to be subjected to mechanical restraint. In December of 2016, the Obama Education Department was so concerned about this trend that it issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to the heads of all local and state education agencies reminding them that some uses of restraint and seclusion may be unlawful.

Are high arrest rates concentrated in Pennsylvania’s largest districts?*

Only one of the ten largest districts in the state, Upper Darby, is among the top 10 districts in the state with the highest student arrest rates. Philadelphia, which has the largest student enrollment in the state by far, ranks 31st among Pennsylvania’s 500 districts in the rate of student arrests.

In our statewide report on school discipline, Beyond Zero Tolerance, we noted a similar pattern for out-of-school suspensions. Of the 10 districts with the highest suspension rates, only 2 were among the 10 largest districts in the state.

Has the student arrest rate in Pennsylvania changed over the years?

We looked beyond the media reports and federal data to review arrest data submitted annually by schools to the state education department over a 10-year period. Both the overall number and rate of school-related arrests have declined in the past decade.

Arrest rates were highest from 2006 to 2009, peaking at almost 12,000 arrests during the 2008-09 school year. In recent years, the student arrest rate has declined to less than half that number. This overall drop in student arrest rates parallels a reduction in juvenile arrests in Pennsylvania during the same period.

There is a lot of food for thought in this data. We encourage you to join the conversation by reviewing your school, local district, and state data.

Samuel Muñeton Jr. is an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. He is a student at The University of Pennsylvania.

*This data provides a snapshot of Pennsylvania districts for the 2013-14 school year. The Pennsylvania Department of Education reports school discipline data through the 2015-16 school year, including the overall number of arrests; however this more recent arrest data is not broken down by race or ethnicity, disability status, or gender.

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Last updated November 23, 2020

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