Woodland Hills approves school resource officer contracts with Churchill, Rankin
Amid community members’ protests, the Woodland Hills School Board voted Thursday to contract school resource officers from the Churchill and Rankin police departments.
The officers will be stationed at the junior-senior high school in Churchill and at the Rankin Promise School in Rankin. The vote was 7-0, with board members Jeff Hanchett and Ava Johnson absent from the special meeting.
“This is an ongoing process,” board member Chardae Seligsohn said. “This process will be developing throughout the school year, and this is not the final answer or solution to the work that needs to be done in our school in regards to safety, and the roles and relationships that the police play in schools.”
Rankin Borough will assign one police officer to the district’s Rankin Promise School for 7.5 hours per day at a rate of $26.40 per hour. That’s a $2.80 increase from last school year, according to school board documents.
Churchill Borough will assign officers to the junior-senior high school for 7.5 hours per day at a rate of $44.54 per hour through Dec. 31.
Both agreements specified that officers will not carry Tasers while at the districts’ schools.
However, the officers will be armed with handguns.
Instead of wearing police uniforms, they will wear polo shirts and khaki pants while patrolling schools.
Both contracts are available on the district’s website via the school board documents portal.
In addition, officers at both schools will undergo additional training if the district requests it. Those training sessions would be paid for by the district.
School resource officers will be included in implicit bias and restorative justice practices training for all district staff and teachers, board President Jamie Glasser said.
“All of the changes that we’re making to the disciplinary process will include the officers,” Glasser said.
The board also voted 7-0 Thursday to approve the Juvenile Justice Partnership program, a program intended to reduce juvenile justice referrals. The district will partner with Allegheny County Juvenile Probation, Allegheny County Court, Allegheny County DHS and area police departments on the program.
A troubling past
The controversial votes took place against the backdrop of last school year, when violent incidents between Churchill police officers assigned to the high school, former high school Principal Kevin Murray and students made national headlines.
A video from March 2015 shows officer Steve Shaulis putting a 15-year-old student in a headlock, slamming him to the ground and shocking him twice with a Taser.
In another video, from April 3 2017, Shaulis can be seen dragging a student, into the high school’s main office lobby before allegedly knocking out one of his teeth off-camera. Shaulis was removed from the school but has not been charged criminally.
Those altercations resulted in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by five former students.
Murray first got in trouble after an audio recording surfaced of him in 2016 threatening a 14-year-old special education student. Murray could 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 resigned as high school principal and head football coach last August .
He will be replaced this school year by Phillip K. Woods, who previously served as a principal in the Penn Hills and West Mifflin school districts.
Woods will be joined at the junior-senior high school by new Assistant Principal Pamela White, who previously served as the assistant principal at West Mifflin Area High School. The board hired White on Thursday at a salary of $85,000.
Community members objected to the manner in which the police contract votes were conducted — it was removed from the agenda during the Aug. 15 legislative meeting and rescheduled for Thursday — and criticized the board’s decision to approve them.
Darnika Reed, of Wilkins Township, is the parent of a high school student and works with advocacy groups Pittsburgh Coalition to End the Deadly Exchange and Alliance for Police Accountability. She organized a group to protest the board at both the Aug. 15 and Thursday’s meeting.
“We don’t care if police brutality is in khakis and polo shirts,” Reed told the board.
She said community members are concerned that there is no way to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
Superintendent James Harris, who was hired by the board Aug. 15, acknowledged that officers could still be intimidating, even though they will no longer be in uniform.
“As a former military policeman, someone carrying a weapon is intimidating,” Harris said. “I don’t care what they have on. There’s still that intimidation factor because they are armed.”
But Harris also emphasized that officers will be in schools to assist administrators, not to take the lead on student discipline.
“The community has every right to be upset about what happened in the past,” Harris said. “But Dr. Woods and I are in total alignment on what we see moving forward: One, the high school discipline will be handled by the administrative staff at the high school, and not handed over to the police.”