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'We're Losing Our Kids.' Woodland Hills Grapples With Student Deaths, Trauma From Violence

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The Woodland Hills Administrative Building.

Since September, seven boys attending Woodland Hills School District schools have been shot; five of those students died. Earlier this month, the junior-senior high school was on lockdown after a teenager was shot in East Pittsburgh.

The shootings did not happen on school property, but Superintendent Alan Johnson said the unprecedented instances of violence have led to a debate over who is responsible for responding to students' needs.

“Some will say it’s the school and some will say ... it has nothing to do with the school, it’s the community. Some will say it’s the family. And the truth is, it’s … all of those things,” he said. “We’re losing our kids.”

Johnson said the teachers are not trained counselors and are managing their own grief while trying to help students through the trauma of losing classmates.

The district has, in the past, worked with outside agencies, including the Center for Violence. But now, Johnson said he’s trying to bring more people in to help students cope.

“Let’s find agencies and groups that can span that gap between the school and the community and the school and home so that we have kind of a continuity of care whereby it’s not just what we can do from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., or whatever the case may be,” he said.

Last week, the Woodland Hills school board approved pilot partnership programs with two groups to work with middle and high school students providing mental health resources.

The board also approved an agreement with the nonprofit counseling provider Caring Foundation.

The agreement states that the students will learn coping mechanisms and be given a space to process. The group is also expected to help facilitate a support group for grieving children and teens.

Additionally, Johnson said the school community is coping with multiple instances of abuse that came to light last year.

In August, five black former Woodland Hills School District students sued the district, alleging they were verbally and physically abused by school police officers and a former principal. They accused district leaders of ignoring the abuse.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court named Johnson, former principal Kevin Murray, assistant principal Patrick Scott, Churchill borough, as well as Churchill police officers Stephen Shaulis and Chris Lewandowski.

Former high school principal Murray resigned in August, months after he was placed on unpaid leave when his state administrator’s certification lapsed. Before that, he was placed on administrative leave during a criminal investigation.

“I’ve been in education almost 30 years. As a building principal in urban schools, I’ve lost students to violence, but that’s usually been once a year or every three years," Johnson said. "But to have it happen over and over in the same year and then to have it happen on top of the trauma we experienced last year, with the very high-profile incidents involving confrontations between police and students in the high school, has just made the last 18 months or so extraordinary in the life of a school district.”

This summer, leaders of the dozen municipalities that make up the district, which spans from Edgewood to Turtle Creek, sent a letter to the school board expressing, “a vote of no confidence” in the district. They also sent letters to state legislators calling for a review by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

When it comes to acts of violence, though, Johnson said community members have expressed feelings of helplessness.

“We know we have lots of things we need to do. We’re trying to push forward our agenda. But you almost get up wondering, ‘what is going to happen today that is going to be a tragedy that we’ll have to deal with?’” he said.