Lawyers, students believe Woodland Hills ‘culture of violence’ is over

October 18, 2018 GMT

Woodland Hills student Jasson Hart said few people initially believed that his former principal threatened him and used racial slurs.

“There was a lot of people who didn’t believe me, who just thought I was just a bad kid in the school, just fooling around being class clown and stuff, but that wasn’t really the case,” the 16-year-old said Wednesday. “People just never really took the time to hear me out and to listen to what was going on.”

Hart said he was threatened by former Woodland Hills High School principal Kevin Murray several times, and that Murray, who is white, used racial slurs against Hart, who is black, during incidents in May 2017. He said Murray once kicked him.

Now, Hart, who is part of a $530,000 lawsuit settlement with the school district feels validated.

He talked to reporters after a press conference in Pittsburgh Wednesday with his attorneys. Hart is relieved that the year-long process is now over, and is continuing his studies as a homebound student--teachers come to his house to teach and deliver assignments, he said.

Those lawyers for students who sued the Woodland Hills School District for alleged civil rights violations are confident new administrators have ended a “culture of violence” within schools.

“When this case was filed, there was a superintendent and a principal, there were resource officers in that school district--Today, those folks have been replaced,” Pittsburgh attorney Tim O’Brien said during a press conference Downtown. “And we believe that the new superintendent and the new principal have made a firm commitment to ensure that no child who attends a school will be exposed to abuse or violence.”

The federal lawsuit, filed in August 2017, asserted 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.

“The problem that was occurring at the school is that this was becoming a norm,” said attorney Todd Hollis. “It happened so often that it was not something that the kids saw as something out of the ordinary.”

The earliest incident included in the lawsuit dated back to 2009.

Attorneys representing the students announced Tuesday that petitions were filed to settle the suit. Five students were included in the settlement, which totaled $530,000. The two petitions filed to the court Tuesday by O’Brien show that the students could receive between $50,000 and $150,000 each. Attorneys’ fees and costs will be paid separately and will not be deducted from the settlement amounts, according to the petitions.

Churchill Borough council voted to approve the settlements Monday.

The Woodland Hills school board has not yet approved any settlements regarding the claims that were subject of the press conference Wednesday, district solicitor John Vogel said.

Other cases involving some of the same plaintiffs have been settled throughout 2018, but they were not the same matters covered in the federal case, he said.

The board will likely discuss the details of the settlements during executive session and will vote publicly sometime soon to accept them, he said. Vogel could not speak to whether any details will be disclosed to the public by the board.

“Typically as with most schools, usually there’s no public discussion of settlement,” Vogel said.

The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday evening for an agenda setting meeting. Voting typically takes place at the second board meeting of each month, which is scheduled for Oct. 17.

Murray resigned from his positions as head football coach and principal in August 2017, following several other alleged violent incidents.

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.

The attorneys thanked the school district and Churchill Borough, also named as a defendant in the suit, for their cooperation and good faith efforts to settle the matter. Personnel changes at the high school were a factor in agreeing to settle, O’Brien said. Those changes were not required by the settlement, he said.

Former superintendent Alan 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.

Brandi Fisher, president of the Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Alliance for Police Accountability, pointed out that community members also came together to advocate for changes at the district.

“A community organized themselves and came together, and that is why this win was able to happen,” Fisher said.

Alliance for Police Accountability is working with community members to remove police officers from schools, Fisher said. Though the school resource officers named in the lawsuit are no longer employed by the district, Woodland Hills still contracts with local police departments to have officers in school buildings. Fisher said community members and Alliance for Police Accountability would like to see more counselors in schools instead.

“We still have to fight to make sure that happens,” Fisher said. “And so, part of that is to have youth walk into school and feel like they’re there to learn and not there to be encamped or watched upon.”