Woodland Hills School District's troubles rooted in past
As the Woodland Hills School District community recovers from several high-profile incidents of violence that surfaced the past year, Summer Lee wonders how much has really changed since the district's tumultuous formation almost 40 years ago.
"I would say that the root of our problems, the culture of our school, really is coming from that court order, and how the community dealt with these different kids from these different neighborhoods and these different backgrounds, being forced to go to school together," said Lee, a 2005 Woodland Hills High School graduate and civil rights attorney.
A 1981 federal court order aimed at desegregation created the district, eventually blending students from 12 municipalities just east of Pittsburgh. Some communities were poor, others were affluent. Some were comprised of mostly black residents, while others were mostly white. The district was under court supervision until 2003 while classrooms, extracurricular activities and faculty were integrated.
"The kids have always been the ones that suffer from that culture clash that we've got," Lee said.
The district hopes it's at a turning point as the new school year starts Thursday, but it's wrestling with other troubling issues.
Altercations between white administrators and police and students received national attention the past year and culminated in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week by five former students. Kevin Murray, who became a polarizing figure last school year for his involvement in several alleged incidents of violence against students, resigned as high school principal this month not long after resigning as the new head football coach before ever coaching a game.
In May, Pittsburgh attorney Todd Hollis released to the media two videos from school surveillance cameras that showed the arrests of two black high school students by a white Churchill police officer assigned to the school as a resource officer.
In one video from April 3, Churchill Officer Steve Shaulis can be seen dragging Que'chawn Wade, 14, into the high school's main office lobby before allegedly knocking out one of his teeth off camera.
A video from March 2015 shows Shaulis putting Ahmad Williams Jr., then 15, in a headlock, slamming him to the ground and shocking him twice with a Taser. Murray helped hold the teen down during the arrest for disorderly conduct. A judge acquitted Williams of resisting arrest after the tape was played at trial.
Administrators placed Murray on leave Nov. 30 for about six weeks after an audio tape of him threatening a special-education student surfaced.
Parents such as Skylor Massie have watched those events unfold with uncertainty.
Massie, who is black, said she feels there is a disparity in the way white students and black students are treated at the high school. Sixty-five percent of students are black.
Her daughter is entering her senior year at the high school and has college aspirations.
Her son would have attended Woodland Hills High School this fall, but earned a scholarship to Shady Side Academy, a prestigious private school. Had he not received the scholarship, Massie is not sure she would have sent him to the high school, especially after watching videos that show the assaults of students.
"I was horrified," Massie said. "The thought of something like that happening to my child is terrifying. You cannot put your hands on a child like that."
During the summer, the administration tapped individuals such as Lee from across the community to serve on the newly formed Woodland Hills Commission on Youth Development and Learning, which will advise the district on policies ranging from discipline to graduation rates.
"I think the challenge is that you have communities that are not originally designed or planned to be collaborating in the school setting," said James Huguley, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and Center on Race and Social Problems.
Huguley, who sits on the commission, said the goal of the district should be to meet the needs of the entire school community.
"It gets difficult for schools because they weren't necessarily set up or designed to deal with those kinds of issues," Huguley said.
He pointed out that Woodland Hills is not alone in searching for equitable ways to not only discipline students, but to support them and celebrate their successes.
"What's happening in Woodland Hills is a microcosm of some things that are happening in our country," said Tina Doose, Braddock Borough Council President. "It has everything to do with race and class."
Doose, also a member of the Woodland Hills Commission, emphasized the need for more teachers of color.
About 18 percent of teachers nationwide are minorities, according to a 2016 report by the Brookings Institution. That figure includes teachers who are black, non-white Hispanic, Native American and Asian.
"I don't believe a lot of teachers and administrators are racist," Doose said. "I'm seeing institutional racism, implicit bias that is there. Though we deny it, it exists and it is a reality."
Doose also hopes that the district will consider removing police officers from the schools and hiring a diversity and equity director to serve as a liaison among school security, teachers, administrators, students and families.
Rev. Richard Freeman, pastor at Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock and a commission member, expressed similar sentiments. In addition to more teacher training, Freeman wants to see high standards and expectations set for all students. "If we don't have that priority, then we have made the fundamental decision some kids are expendable, and some are not," Freeman said.
Superintendent Alan Johnson agreed that adding minority teachers would benefit the district. The district has 60 minority employees, including 19 black teachers and nine black administrators. Overall, the district has just under 500 employees, 315 of whom are teachers.
Currently, any qualified minority candidate is guaranteed an interview for a faculty job, he said.
"The criticism, maybe justified, is that we're not going out and trying to find them." Johnson said of minority employees. "Maybe we need to do a better job at that and that's something we need to learn about."
Replacing Murray at the high school will be a critical hire, Johnson said.
"We need to make sure we are getting a person who understands this community and really understands the issues that are facing Woodland Hills," he said.
School board member Jeff Hildebrand has two daughters at the high school. He said he has a vested interest in the district's success. He acknowledged that the past school year was particularly challenging.
"A lot of the issues were self-inflicted problems, things that our own people are doing," he said. "It's taking away from the successes."
The district's four-year cohort graduation rate was 84 percent, not far off the statewide rate of 86 percent, according to the newest Department of Education data.
Johnson pointed out that the most recent graduating class received $5.2 million in scholarships.
"All of that gets lost in the cacophony of noise of the negative things," Johnson said.
While his children are happy and thriving at the high school, Hildebrand also thinks the district needs to make sure it embraces all children.
"I don't want my kids to have a different experience at the school than other kids," he said.
And he wants them to be safe.
"If you would have asked me five years ago, 'Should there be armed police officers in a school?' I would have said no," he said. "I think in recent years there are too many people willing to walk into a school with a gun and shoot others. The risk is too high."
But Hildebrand doesn't think officers such as Shaulis need to carry Tasers.
"I'm sorry, but you don't need a Taser to deal with students," he said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines. Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, email@example.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.