A bill introduced to City Council Tuesday could expand an anti-violence program to four Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The “Safe Passages” program, which was piloted at Perry High School, brings community leaders into the building to defuse tensions before they boil over into violence.
The program’s expansion is supported by Mayor Ed Gainey, who said in a statement that the program “invites trusted community members to work with students who themselves can become members of the team and be paid for bringing about peace.”
The city and the nonprofit Operation Better Block accepted a $2.5 million grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to support the expansion earlier this spring.
Taili Thompson, director of Operation Better Block’s Violence Prevention Initiative, said its “Safe Passages” program is designed to “change the culture” among high schoolers by teaching them to think of violence as a disease to avoid “like catching the flu.”
Community members “are inside the schools, attempting to mediate conflicts, build relationships with the students,” Thompson said. They then identify students to hire as “safety ambassadors” paid to join in anti-violence initiatives. At Perry, about a dozen students took part.
Nonprofit groups launched Safe Passages there in the late spring of 2021, after a large fight required several law enforcement officials to respond to the North Side high school. But the program wasn’t fully functional until the current school year.
Thompson said that after one year of the program, there has been a change in how students interact with school fights and other forms of violence. “I can guarantee you is that when a fight breaks out today at Perry, you will not have 20 people involved because we have relationships with the kids,” Thompson claimed.
But that cultural shift has yet to appear in data. According to statistics from Pittsburgh Public Schools, the suspension rate for the high school was about 44% for the 2022-2023 school year, up from roughly 38% the previous year.
Officials at Perry did not respond to WESA’s request for comment about suspension rates and Safe Passages.
Thompson, who previously worked on violence prevention efforts at the Allegheny County Health Department, said it would be unfair to judge the program based on one year of data. He argued most public health efforts often require several years before improvement is evident.
“We’re treating this disease of violence,” Thompson said. “We just really need a commitment in time before we can start to see real results.”
Thompson said there will be clearer evidence of the program’s impact after the expansion is completed and more schools participate.
City Council members will now weigh in on how Operation Better Block plans to spend the funding to bring Safe Passages to Westinghouse, Allderdice and Carrick high schools while continuing the program at Perry High School.
Thompson said he also plans to incorporate Oliver Citywide Academy in the expansion.
The school has been the site of a number of violent incidents over the last 18 months. Two students died in separate shootings outside of the school and a teacher was assaulted within that time span.
But unlike the other schools, Oliver’s students come from all over the city. Thompson said that makes identifying any one community member to manage a Safe Passages program difficult. He said Operation Better Block plans to have managers from other participating schools come to Oliver one day per week to operate anti-violence programming there.
“During that time they’ll be engaging with kids who come from their base school,” Thompson said.
The future of Oliver is somewhat murky: Officials have decided to keep the building closed for the remainder of the school year after the most recent shooting, and administrators are considering plans to draw down the student population there.
Operation Better Block’s proposed budget includes program managers at each school, funds for 80 safety ambassador stipends — 10 in each participating school — and two regional managers. Thompson said his focus is on Pittsburgh’s North Side and East End, specially in communities more likely to be impacted by violence.
The contract won’t be the first time City Council members discuss Safe Passages. Members debated the effectiveness of the program in March, when they voted to accept grant funding for the expansion. At the time, several members expressed reservations about duplicating violence outreach work already being done by the city.
Council President Theresa Kail Smith said at the time that city residents deserve more information about the impact of anti-violence efforts.
“I think the community is seeing so much money going into efforts to stop the violence in the city of Pittsburgh,” she said in March. “I just want make sure what we do actually has a good effect.”
This week, Councilor Anthony Coghill, whose district includes Carrick High School, said he still has questions about how Operation Better Block will spend the $2.5 million grant.
Coghill, who introduced the bill Tuesday on behalf of the mayor, said he’s confident that Operation Better Block is knowledgeable about violence prevention strategies. But he said he wants to understand more about how staff will be selected for the program.
“I don’t have any reservations about introducing it. But I do have questions around it, which I hope we’ll answer next week at the table,” Coghill said. “I want to make sure we’re allocating [the money] effectively.”
As for the Gainey administration, the mayor’s office said in a statement that programs like Safe Passages are proof of how the city can “innovate … effective violence interruption” at city schools.
“We’re very excited in this investment in keeping our children safe, physically, emotionally and mentally,” Gainey said in a statement. “We’re committed in giving our young people a space to learn and grow.”