Woodland Hills students returned to school Monday morning — where they’ll start classes, go to football games and hang out in hallways guarded by police from departments with histories of violent interactions with students in the school.
The Woodland Hills School board voted unanimously Thursday night to renew its contracts with the Rankin and Churchill police departments and keep armed officers in schools to vocal disagreement from more than 20 protesters. The vote follows a 2017 federal civil rights lawsuit that five Woodland Hills students filed against the school’s former police officers — alternately titled school resource officers — and Woodland Hills administrators for fostering what the lawsuit called a “culture of abuse” in their high school.
It also comes on the heels of resignations by both the Woodland Hills Principal Kevin Murray and District Superintendent Alan Johnson, and the July homicide of former Woodland Hills student Antwon Rose Jr. by East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld.
“Antwon Rose was murdered by a police officer. Now his friends have to go to school with the people who murdered him,” Dara Levy Bernstein, 28, of East Liberty said during the public comments portion of the meeting.
According to Woodland Hills Superintendent James Harris, whom the board appointed a week prior to the vote, school resource officers are necessary to prevent mass shootings at Woodland Hills.
“What would happen if an armed shooter entered the building?” Harris said. “I believe in school resource officers.”
But he’s changing their role in the disciplinary process in response to the protests.
“If anyone attacks a student or a teacher, they’re gone,” Harris said.
Churchill and Rankin police departments will station officers at the Woodland Hills Junior Senior High School in Churchill and at the Rankin Promise School in Rankin. As per the contracts, the officers will patrol in polo shirts and khakis instead of uniforms and will no longer carry tasers. They will carry handguns.
Protesters said after the vote that the uniform changes didn’t matter as long as police retain arrest powers in schools, which board president Jamie Glasser said they would.
“We don’t care if police brutality is in khakis and polo shirts!” Darnika Reed, a Woodland Hills parent and Wilkins Township resident said to the board in tears. “Churchill has not been reprimanding their officers,” Reed said in reference to the fact that Woodland Hills’ former SRO Steve Shaulis has yet to be criminally charged.
Woodland Hills students have a troubled history with police brutality.
In late spring last year, Shaulis hit 14-year-old Queshawn Wade so hard in the face that he knocked his front tooth out, Wade’s attorney Todd Hollis alleges. Hollis said Shaulis assaulted Wade in front of another officer and Murray, who was suspended earlier that year for threatening to do the exact same thing to a 14-year-old student with special needs.
“I’ll knock your [expletive] teeth down your throat,” Murray can be heard saying to the student on a cell phone recording of the incident.
A March 2015 video shows Shaulis slamming a student to the ground and discharging a taser twice while Murray restrained the student. A 2009 video shows him tasing another student against a locker while Murray looked on.
The assaults prompted five students to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school in August 2017. Plaintiffs named Murray, Shaulis, Johnson, Assistant Principal Patrick Scott, the Churchill borough, Churchill police officer Chris Lewandowski and Dynasty Security, which provides additional security at the school, as defendants. Murray, Johnson and Scott resigned last year.
This coming year, Harris emphasized that he’ll work with new staff members to change the school’s discipline process.
“This is a different Woodland Hills than the one from a few weeks ago,” Harris said.
According to Harris, all disciplinary matters will be handled by the incoming principal Phillip Woods, who was formerly a principal in the Penn Hills and West Mifflin school districts. SROs will also be required to participate in implicit bias training with staff and teachers.
“Students will not be arrested,” Harris said. “Dr. Woods and I will not tolerate any abuse to our students.”
The Woodland Hills board also approved a “memorandum of understanding” to participate in the School Justice Partnership, a Department of Education program created to reduce juvenile justice referrals for low-level offenses and minor infractions. Woodland Hills will partner with the Allegheny County Court and local police departments on the program.
Board member Chardae Seligsohn also emphasized that they are subject to modification throughout the year.
“This process will be developing throughout the school year, and this is not the final answer,” Seligsohn said.
But for concerned parents and community members, a modified police agreement doesn’t do enough to address the district’s history of brutality toward students.
“You’re still trying to criminalize your students,” Jordan Malloy, 22, from Braddock, said to the board during the public comments portion of the meeting. “You criminalized Queshawn.”
Protesters also criticized the board for waiting until the day of the vote to release the contracts, despite Reed’s requests to see them months before.
“This is kangaroo [court]!” protester Melvin Pollard shouted from the audience shortly before walking out. “You’ve already decided how you’re going to vote.”
In response, board member David Graves said the plans couldn’t be released prior to the meeting for security reasons.
“We have great conversations behind closed doors,” Graves said. “If we discussed [the security plan] openly, then we’re providing that plan to the public.”
Woodland Hills parent Erica Yesko, 44, from East Pittsburgh, walked out of the room after Graves’ comments.
“The Woodland Hills staff is very frustrating to me,” Yesko said after leaving the room. “It’s so frustrating to live in a district where you don’t have any type of say-so.”
She’s considering removing her two youngest children from the Woodland Hills school district in response to the vote.
“They make you send your kids to school,” Yesko said, “and I don’t feel like my kids are safe in school.”