A perception problem
Superintendent: Incidents at Woodland Hills don’t reflect high school’s real culture
When principal Kevin Murray was placed on paid leave in November, he emailed all 143 teachers at Woodland Hills High School and told them they could talk about the situation with their students.
An audio recording had surfaced of him threatening to hit a student, and Mr. Murray, in his second year as principal, was suspended while the school district and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office investigated.
But he still felt that the incident provided the perfect opportunity for teachers and students to talk about what they were reading online and the rumors swirling as a result.
“It was a bad situation,” Mr. Murray said last week. “Obviously, these are things we don’t want to deal with.”
After a blistering report two years ago that ranked Woodland Hills among the top 10 districts in the nation for suspending elementary school students in 2011-12, the district has been trying to make changes and reduce the number of students who are suspended or expelled.
Last year, district administrators were invited to the White House in recognition of their efforts. The district was recently invited to participate in the School Justice Partnership, a national project that aims at closer collaboration between schools, law enforcement, mental health experts and the juvenile justice system for student success.
Superintendent Alan Johnson described the incident involving Mr. Murray and an April 3 incident involving school resource Officer Scott Shaulis “two unfortunate black eyes” in the midst of major disciplinary overhauls in the district.
“In my heart, I know they were just the worst possible coincidences that Woodland Hills could have had,” Mr. Johnson said. “They don’t reflect what Woodland Hills is about.
“We’re trying not to let it overshadow all the good we’ve done.”
Mr. Murray was reinstated in January and wasn’t charged with a crime. While he has been vigorously defended by school district leadership, others have called for his termination. At a school board meeting last week, more than a hundred people packed into the board room calling for him to be fired rather than be appointed the high school’s head football coach. The school board approved his appointment in a 5-4 vote.
The concerned parents also called on the school district to remove Officer Shaulis, a Churchill police officer, after a 14-year-old student accused him of calling the boy a slur before dragging him into an office and hitting him so hard that a tooth fell out. The DA’s office is investigating whether he used excessive force and has said the results of that inquiry will be shared with the FBI.
The student who recorded Mr. Murray threatening to “knock his [expletive] teeth down his throat” was sentenced to six months of probation on an unrelated wiretap charge. Que’Shawn Wade, Officer Shaulis’ accuser, faces charges including aggravated assault and resisting arrest, attorney Todd Hollis said. The student has a hearing in juvenile court at the end of the month.
Mr. Hollis, who represented both students in the separate cases, said the two incidents were not coincidental.
“They are part of a systemic, cultural problem at Woodland Hills that has gone on for too long,” he said.
The protesters at the school board meeting agreed, saying that not only are they concerned about safety in the high school, but also that the administration is disproportionately doling out the harshest punishments to black students.
The district updated its student conduct code in 2014 and implemented the new policies in time for the 2015-16 school year. State data show the district’s overall number of suspensions and expulsions declined in 2014-15, then spiked again in 2015-16. But Mr. Murray attributes that spike to “growing pains” during the first year the high school was merged with the junior high school.
As principal, Mr. Murray has been instrumental in helping the school district implement “restorative practices,” a method of building relationships with students in an effort to prevent bad behavior and, ultimately, punishments like suspensions or expulsions that push kids out of the classroom.
This year, teachers at the high school have been focusing on breaking their classes into small groups for discussion about the course subject or anything else they want to talk about. According to data provided by the school district, the number of student expulsions dropped from 72 last year to 10 this year.
The small group settings “even the playing field” between the students and teachers, Mr. Murray said. They discuss topics like what they are reading in English class, but also other subjects they may want to talk about with their teachers and their peers. Mr. Murray told his staff, for instance, to talk with their students about a February shooting that claimed the lives of two recent graduates and wounded a Woodland Hills senior.
Those conversations help the students understand and get control of their emotions, Mr. Murray said. The strategy not only helps students to trust their teachers, but could also prevent the sort of class disruptions that can get them sent to the principal’s office. And if a student is given detention or suspended, the teachers and administrators make it a point to sit down with that student afterward, so that both parties are able to move forward and continue in class without any more trouble.
“Slowly, I think our kids are coming to us and learning that we can try to help them,” Mr. Murray said.
Brandi Fisher, the founder of the Alliance for Police Accountability and the organizer of the rally before the school board meeting, said she would rather see how many students are being referred to the police rather than expelled. She said the two incidents involving Mr. Murray and Officer Shaulis demonstrate that what is on paper doesn’t reflect the true culture in Woodland Hills schools.
“It doesn’t mix,” Ms. Fisher said. “The whole point of restorative practices is to reduce harm and also to help mold youth into understanding the effects of harm. What Woodland Hills is doing is operating in this zero-tolerance type of manner and funneling children into the criminal justice system by charging them for behaviors that are typical for their age. That is the exact opposite of restorative practices.”
She was also critical of the district’s use of school resource officers as administrators.
“You may not be expelling children, but you sure are having these children charged,” Ms. Fisher said.
Mr. Johnson, the superintendent, acknowledged that the district needs to work more with its school resource officers about how to interact with students, and that the district is constantly trying to sort out which kids are “bad kids,” and which kids are “just having a bad day.”
The Woodland Hills district has been trying for years to shed its reputation as violent and out of control, he said. Years ago, in an effort to put a stop to violence in the hallways, the administration did institute a zero-tolerance approach. But now the district wants to “swing the pendulum back” in order to keep kids in the classroom while keeping everyone safe at the same time.
“We’re imperfect people trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Johnson said. “We genuinely — not just because we’re being pressed to do it — we want to be better.”
He hopes the community can understand that the district is trying to make improvements, and the two most recent incidents don’t reflect the new direction the district wants to take.
“If they really would take the time to learn about it, we’re not the horrible people that they think we are,” Mr. Johnson said. “We make mistakes and we want to be better. We want to do more for our kids. It’s just an ongoing process.”