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Woodland Hills hires embattled high school principal as varsity football coach |

Woodland Hills hires embattled high school principal as varsity football coach

Jamie Martines
Kevin Murray (center) and former athletic director and football coach George Novak (right) listen to board discussion while protesters voice their objections at the Woodland Hills School Board meeting on Wednesday, April 20. The board voted 5-4 to hire Murray as head coach.

The Woodland Hills School Board voted 5-4 Wednesday to hire Kevin Murray, the controversial high school principal, as head coach of the varsity football team.

Murray has drawn criticism for an incident in which he allegedly threatened a 14-year-old special education student and for leading a school at which a Churchill police officer knocked out a student’s tooth earlier this month.

After the board’s vote, more than a dozen residents urged the directors to reconsider their decision to hire Murray. Several voiced disappointment that the vote occurred before the public had a chance to speak.

Murray did not respond to a message from the Tribune-Review before the vote, nor was he available for comment after the meeting.

He has been assistant head coach the past five years.

The board also hired Ron Coursey as the new athletic director in a 7-2 vote. Coursey is athletic director for the York School District.

“I held these positions for 30 years,” said outgoing head football coach and athletic director George Novak, flanked by Coursey and Murray as he addressed the board prior to Wednesday night’s vote. “With the board’s help tonight, we’re going to join these two guys right here, and they’re going to get out into the community and work together, and do a better job than I did for the next 30 years.”

Novak’s optimism was not matched by many who attended to protest the hiring; in fact, many are still calling for Murray to be fired from his principal’s job.

Prior to the board meeting, dozens of people gathered outside the district administrative building on Jones Avenue in North Braddock for a rally organized by the Alliance for Police Accountability, a Pittsburgh advocacy organization focused on criminal justice reform.

“I know how deep the spirit of sports is at Woodland Hills,” said Brandi Fisher, founder and CEO of the organization. “And Coach Novak is retiring, and they need someone else to take his place, at all costs — at the cost of children being beaten, at the cost of children being abused and at the cost of children being charged with aggravated assault.”

Fisher previously coached cheerleading in the district, and her children attended school there.

Those at the rally were there not to protest the football coach’s hiring, but in support of a 14-year-old high school student who was injured in a conflict involving a police officer patrolling the school earlier this month.

The teen said the Churchill police officer beat him up and knocked out one of his front teeth during an arrest.

The student’s lawyer said the incident stemmed from accusations that the student stole a cellphone, and the conflict escalated into a fight after the officer called the suspect a derogatory name.

The student claims Murray witnessed at least part of the fight.

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the officer.

School Board President Tara Reis said the district is cooperating with the district attorney’s office and reiterated that such school resource officers are not school district employees.

The school district maintains that Murray was not involved in the April incident.

Murray was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 30 in connection with an incident in which an audio recording surfaced of him allegedly threatening a 14-year-old special education student. Murray returned to the job in late January. The district said he was disciplined, but officials wouldn’t say how.

Murray did not face criminal charges. But Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., in a letter to Superintendent Alan Johnson, called Murray’s actions “inappropriate and arguably threatening.”

Summer Lee, a 2005 graduate of Woodland Hills and a current Swissvale resident, was disappointed by the vote but urged the school board to do more to engage with parents in general.

“You have to keep reaching out because it’s not always apathy,” she said, telling the board that some parents stay away because they think their voices will be silenced.

“What would give me pride in this district is knowing that my children would be safe,” said Akeya Kester, a graduate of Woodland Hills and a current Braddock Hills resident with two children in the district.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or [email protected]

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