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Woodland Hills student panel offers solutions for improving school culture, climate

Jamie Martines
| Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, 9:30 p.m.

About 50 parents, teachers and Woodland Hills School District community members gathered at the district's Rankin Promise School on Monday to meet with a panel of five high school students discussing how to improve school climate and how to move forward following several incidents of violence in the community.

"Tonight showed us that we have a support system," senior and panelist Maya Sanders said of the event, explaining that the students' goal as upperclassmen is to leave a strong legacy behind after graduation.

Among the solutions student panelists suggested was a need for supportive adults in students' lives. That includes parents, teachers, administrators and mentors who will encourage and motivate students, even in small ways, they said.

"It's the little things that are going to keep the school going," said Alauna Jackson, a senior on the panel.

"They all just have such an impact on us, as students," Sanders added.

The panel also emphasized the need for more events that involve students across the school community and at all grade levels, citing a recent dodgeball tournament and volunteer activities as examples.

"It's important because we're all getting to know each other," said Sheldon Johnson, a senior on the panel, adding that there's also a need to bring the neighborhoods that make up the Woodland Hills School District together.

"They show that our school is united," Jackson said of the community events. "It shows that we actually care about the community."

Panelist Ciara Turner, a junior, called Monday's forum "the first step" in changing the culture of the district and painting the students and school community in a more positive way.

"I was very pleased that our kids talked about hope, caring about each other, uplifting each other and inclusion," Assistant Superintendent Licia Lentz said.

The meeting was the second community forum on the topic of student safety and school climate hosted by the district. The first, held in December, invited community members to share their thoughts on how to keep students safe when they're not at school.

Another forum is expected to be held in March and will follow up on the solutions students suggested at this meeting, Lentz said.

Last month, the Woodland Hills school board reviewed several partnerships with community organizations that will bring additional resources and programs into the schools intended to help students and staff cope with the impact of violence. The programs will focus on addressing grief and trauma, as well as supporting overall mental health.

The Woodland Hills community lost several students to gun violence since the start of the school year in September.

Augustus C. Gray, 14, of Braddock was fatally shot Nov. 25 in Pittsburgh's Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood. He was an eighth-grader at Woodland Hills. On Nov. 27, Jerame Turner, 16, of Turtle Creek was killed. He was a high school junior. An unidentified 13-year-old was shot in the arm in the same incident.

A third student, an 11th-grader in the district, was injured in a shooting near a school bus stop at Jones and Kirkpatrick avenues in North Braddock on Dec. 1. A fourth student, 7-year-old Jo Lawrence Stewart, died at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC on Dec. 26 after being shot in Swissvale. He was a first-grader at the district's Wilkins Primary.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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