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Woodland Hills students settle 'culture of violence' lawsuit for more than $500k

Jamie Martines
| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, 12:15 p.m.
Queshawn Wade, a 14-year-old student at Woodland Hills High School sits during a press conference hosted by lawyer Todd Hollis inside of his office downtown on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Queshawn Wade, a 14-year-old student at Woodland Hills High School sits during a press conference hosted by lawyer Todd Hollis inside of his office downtown on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Woodland Hills High School Principal Kevin Murray listens to his attorney, Phillip DiLucente speak to the media at DiLucente's office downtown, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Woodland Hills High School Principal Kevin Murray listens to his attorney, Phillip DiLucente speak to the media at DiLucente's office downtown, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.
Pittsburgh attorney Todd Hollis in 2017 discussing Churchill Police Officer Steve Shaulis.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh attorney Todd Hollis in 2017 discussing Churchill Police Officer Steve Shaulis.

Students have agreed to settle a federal lawsuit against the Woodland Hills School District in which they alleged administrators allowed a culture of violence where adults beat up children, attorneys said Tuesday.

The five plaintiffs agreed to a sum exceeding $500,000, according to attorneys for the students.

The settlement is subject to court approval, said Pittsburgh attorney Todd Hollis, who is representing the plaintiffs with attorney Timothy O’Brien. Petitions filed to the court Tuesday by O’Brien show that the students could receive between $50,000 and $150,000 each. Attorney’s fees and costs will be paid separately and will not be deducted from the settlement amounts, according to the petitions.

The lawsuit, which alleged civil rights violations, was filed in August 2017 and asserted that there was a longstanding culture of violence at Woodland Hills High School. It accused adults, including administrators, Churchill police officers working in the school and the security company working for the school of beating up students or looking the other way as the abuse occurred.

Attorney Joseph Luvara, who represents the district, said that the settlements are tentative as the school board has not voted on them yet. He did not know when that item will be added to the board’s agenda and was unable to provide a timeline for when the settlements will be finalized.

The school board is scheduled to meet Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the district administration building at 531 Jones Avenue in North Braddock for an agenda setting meeting.

“The tentative settlement is in the best interest of all the parties,” Luvara said, adding that agreeing to the settlement is not to be taken as an admission of liability.

Attorneys representing the other defendants, which include Churchill Borough, Dynasty Security, Churchill Police Officer Stephen Shaulis and former principal Kevin Murray, were not available for comment Tuesday.

Churchill Borough Council voted Monday to approve settlement of matters included in the lawsuit, borough solicitor Gavin Robb confirmed Tuesday. Robb did not disclose details of the settlement and was not able to describe whether the vote was unanimous. An agenda available on the district website does not include further details. Minutes of the Oct. 8 meeting will not be available until next month.

Council always allows public comment before taking action on agenda items but discussions regarding litigation matters are not done publicly, Robb said.

Hollis said that a press conference will be held Wednesday to share details of the settlement.

“The plaintiffs brought this lawsuit to ensure that society’s most vulnerable members — our children — would never again be subject to a culture of violence and sub-standard education while attending the Woodland Hills School District,” Hollis said in a statement.

Former Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson resigned from his post in February. Johnson served the district for seven years and was contracted to work through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

His early retirement came less than a year after former high school principal and football coach Kevin Murray resigned in the wake of several alleged violent incidents between Churchill police officers assigned to the school and students.

Authorities investigated an incident in which an audio recording surfaced of Murray allegedly threatening a 14-year-old special education student.

Murray can be heard on the recording saying, “I’ll punch you right in your face, dude,” and “I’ll knock your (expletive) teeth down your throat.” Murray did not face charges in connection with the incident, but his actions were noted in the federal lawsuit.

Johnson was replaced this fall by James P. Harris, the former superintendent at the Daniel Boone Area School District in Berks County. Murray was replaced by Phillip K. Woods, who previously worked as a principal in the Penn Hills School District and high school principal in the West Mifflin Area School District.

Both Harris and Woods have told the Trib that they plan to work toward establishing trust with students and families. They said that they will be working to reform school discipline policies by relying less on school resource officers and instead looking to restorative justice practices to mediate student conflicts.

Hollis said in a statement that this turnover is a sign that the district has committed “to end the violence and guarantee that no Woodland Hills student is again a victim of the ‘school to prison pipeline.’”

“The plaintiffs commend the school district for its commitment to make these needed changes,” the statement said.

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

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