Loading articles...

Lawsuit: School created culture of abuse and excessive force

Last Updated Aug 23, 2017 at 8:00 pm EDT

In this May 12, 2017, photo, Kevin Murray, former principal of Woodland Hill High School, pauses during an interview with the Associated Press in Churchill, Pa. Murray and five other individuals, along with the school district, borough government, and a security contractor, are being sued by the guardians of five black children alleging a pattern of abuse and false charges against students. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

A Pittsburgh-area school with a history of racial tension created a culture of verbal abuse and excessive force that allowed resource officers to shock students with stun guns and body-slam them, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The lawsuit by the guardians of five black former students of Woodland Hills High School also says school administrators “intentionally discriminated” against students because of their race and filed false charges to cover up abuse.

The suit seeks compensatory damages and legal fees from the defendants, named as the district, the Churchill borough government, a security contractor and six individuals, including a former principal, two school resource officers and the district superintendent.

In April, the Allegheny County district attorney said he was reviewing allegations that Steve Shaulis, a resource officer at the school, punched and knocked out the tooth of a 14-year-old freshman accused of stealing another’s student cellphone. Pictures of the freshman’s bruised face appeared online.

In May, video surfaced of Shaulis body-slamming a 15-year-old student in 2015 and shocking him with a stun gun.

The tapes sparked outrage among parents over the district’s reliance on resource officers, and they confronted school board members and held protests.

“Why wasn’t anything ever done? How could anybody in charge look at those videos and not hold anyone accountable?” said one of the filing attorneys, Timothy O’Brien, at a Wednesday news conference. “When a child goes to school, they shouldn’t be treated like an inmate at a prison.”

The suit cites five incidents in total. Attorneys cited two newly released videos dating back nearly a decade to argue the incidents constituted a pattern of abuse.

A video from 2009 shows Shaulis shoving a student into a locker without apparent physical provocation, then shocking the student with a stun gun and arresting him.

One in 2010 shows a behavioural specialist lifting a student up against a locker and slamming him into the ground, breaking the student’s wrist. The student was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, the lawsuit said, but charges were withdrawn after a district attorney reviewed the video.

The fifth incident involved school principal Kevin Murray, who was caught on a recording last year threatening to punch a 14-year-old special education student in the face and “knock your … teeth down your throat.” Murray resigned last week.

Shaulis transferred out of the school this year, and police records show his standing at the police department has remained the same.

The suit says the lack of intervention until this year shows the district and the borough were complicit by being “fully aware of these abuses” but not doing anything about it.

“Nobody has been disciplined, nobody has been retrained, and until that happens, every single child who attends Woodland Hills High School is at risk,” O’Brien said.

The police department that employs Shaulis declined to comment, and Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Phil DiLucente, an attorney representing Murray and Shaulis, said Shaulis had used “reasonable force” when he was seen body-slamming and shocking a student in the 2015 video and that the matter had already been adjudicated.

The Woodland Hills school district has long been troubled by racial tensions. It was created by court order in 1981 after a decadelong legal battle between predominantly white, affluent Pittsburgh suburb school districts and three African-American mothers. Though just miles apart, the black schools had crumbling walls and broken toilets while the white schools were some of the best in the area. Today, the school has a predominantly white teaching staff and a majority black student population.

Since 2006, the school has relied on resource officers, managed by police, to maintain order. When controversy erupted over the pictures and recordings that surfaced in April and May, administrators told The Associated Press in their defence that resource officers were not under their jurisdiction.

“When they step in, we step back, because then it’s a police issue,” Murray said in May. “I’ve had people ask me before: ‘Why didn’t you stop that police officer from arresting that young man?’ Well, then I would be arrested for impeding arrest.”

Woodland Hills administrators said that the officers were necessary to break up fights and protect students from harm. Legal experts say the lack of clear jurisdiction can cause officers to give out overly harsh punishments with little accountability.