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Woodland Hills ‘youth development’ group to improve campus climate after violence

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Pittsburgh attorney Todd Hollis released a video to the media from March 3, 2015, that shows an incident inside Woodland Hills High School student involving a then-14-year-old student and Churchill Police Officer Steve Shaulis and Principal Kevin Murray.

Woodland Hills School District on Wednesday announced a new commission tasked with studying how to improve the climate of its campuses, improve public trust in the district and ease tensions spurred by violent altercations caught on video between staff and students.

“We know that the community has a lot of questions, concerns,” Woodland Hills Superintendent Alan Johnson told the Tribune-Review.

“We believe that the only way we’re going to address this comprehensively is not to dwell on the video, or the one or two incidents, or three incidents,” he continued. “The problems that exist are much deeper. They’re systemic, and they go to how we relate to kids.”

Officials are tapping 15 to 20 community volunteers — parents, teachers, clergy, business professionals, law enforcement and community leaders — to serve on the independent body known as the Woodland Hills Commission on Youth Development.

Two co-chairs were named Wednesday: Karen Farmer White, education advocate and a former vice president of education at WQED Multimedia; and Jerry Zahorchak, a retired superintendent and former Pennsylvania education secretary from 2006-10.

Johnson said the remaining members will be determined by next week.

The commission has five focus areas: student equity, diversity, relationship- and community-building, school climate and graduation rates.

Over the summer, members will review disciplinary policies and procedures at campuses district-wide and make recommendations in August.

Woodland Hills made national headlines after a Pittsburgh attorney released videos from Woodland Hills High School surveillance cameras that showed the arrests of two black students by a white Churchill police officer assigned to the school.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said last month that arrest tactics by a police officer assigned to the high school could have civil rights implications .

About a month ago, Woodland High School Principal Kevin Murray sent a letter to parents lamenting that “the emotional climate of Woodland Hills is not ideal right now, and I am not sure that it ever has been.”

Woodland Hills is the product of a court-ordered merger of a large, predominantly black school district with four predominantly white ones in the eastern suburbs in 1981. Today’s district includes 12 communities.

The newly formed commission will likely meet in private, Johnson said, but members will welcome input from anyone who is “solution-oriented and forward-thinking” and wants to contribute to the district’s “long-range strategic plan.”

Reach the commission at [email protected]

Staff writer Jamie Martines contributed. Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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