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Amid Controversy, Woodland Hills School District Renews Contracts With Police

The Woodland Hills School Board on Thursday voted unanimously to renew two controversial security contracts.

The public meeting was heated.

The school district east of Pittsburgh had come under fire from parents and other critics for using uniformed officers contracted from the Churchill and Rankin police departments. Some critics largely blamed the police presence for a series of well-publicized incidents in which school security personnel and other staff were caught on video striking students, all of whom were black.

Last year, five former students filed a federal lawsuit alleging a culture of abuse. Parties named in the suit include the district’s former superintendent, the former high school principal, and a Churchill police officer who worked at the high school.

Before the school board meeting on Thursday, about 20 protestors gathered outside the district’s headquarters in North Braddock to decry what they called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Darnika Reed, a Woodland Hills parent who organized the protest, said the use of police as security personnel – the district calls them “school resource officers” – to supplement private security staffers has led to students being arrested and even charged with crimes for alleged behavior that in other schools would be treated as in-house disciplinary matters.

The board meeting had been specially scheduled largely to vote on the two contracts. Time was not allotted for public comment, but Reed, fellow Woodland Hills parent Erica Yesco and others demanded to speak before the vote.

After board president Jamie Glasser made reference to the district's new security policy, speakers objected that they hadn’t known there was one, or a public process to create it.

“There should have been talk of a plan before we got here,” said Reed.

After the meeting, new superintendent James B. Harris said the security plan – which includes things like floor plans and the position of surveillance cameras – could not be made public because that would compromise security.

Yesco, citing bullying her daughter suffered on the school bus, said bus monitors would be a better use of resources than police in the schools. Other speakers referenced the death of Woodland Hills High School student Antwon Rose, Jr., in a police shooting in May, and the deaths of other area youths, and asked how his former schoolmates will feel going to school under the eyes of police.

The board voted 7-0 to renew contracts with the Churchill and Rankin police departments, each for one year.

“We have to realize the concern of external threats,” said board member Mike Belmonte, citing school shootings around the nation. He was echoed by board members Donald Graves Jr. and Chardae Seligsohn.

In a public comment period following the vote, Darnika Reed blasted the board.

“The fact of the matter is, the kids have a greater chance of being abused by a police officer in the schools than they have to interact with an active shooter,” she said to applause. “How many active shooters have you had?”

But board members said policies have changed. Starting this year, officers won’t be uniformed or carry Tazers, said board president Glasser. And following the meeting, James B. Harris, the district’s new superintendent – sworn in days earlier – said that disciplinary issues formerly handled by police will now be dealt with by school staff.

Harris is a nonvoting member of the board. Addressing reporters after the meeting, he acknowledged community concerns.

“The community has every right to be upset about what happened last year,” he said. “I saw it on video. It was disgusting.” Videos of school staff appearing to choke and strike Woodland Hills students have gone viral.

But he emphasized that the school has all-new leadership, including himself and high school principal Phillip K. Woods.

“The community has to realize that we’re doing a reboot,” Harris said. “Dr. Woods and I will not tolerate any abuse to our students."

Harris said that officers in the schools will no longer be uniformed or carry Tazers. And disciplinary issues formerly handled by police would now be dealt with by school administrators.