Five former Woodland Hills School District students filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning in the U.S. District Court alleging the district and administration perpetuated a culture of abuse, perpetrated by the former high school principal and a school resource officer.
The civil rights complaint filed collectively by three law offices names the school district, current superintendent Alan Johnson, former principal Kevin Murray, Assistant Principal Patrick Scott, Churchill Borough, Churchill police officer Stephen Shaulis who was placed at the high school as a school resource officer, and the security company Dynasty Security.
The complaint comes after the district made national news for two separate incidents of abuse. In November 2016, an audio recording of Murray threatening a 14-year-old student was released. Five months later, a video of another 14-year-old student being punched in the face by Shaulis, a Churchill police officer assigned to the school, was released.
Attorneys Todd Hollis and Tim O’Brien are representing the five black students named as plaintiffs. The suit alleges that the students were discriminated against because of their race and because some of the students have emotional and behavioral disorders.
The 30-page complaint alleges that the school district, “created and/or acquiesced in a culture of verbal abuse, excessive force, and intimidation.” The complaint alleges that the district knew of the harm to the five high school students, “yet took no action to prevent them.”
The complaint also alleges superintendent Johnson knew students were subjected to the use of excessive force.
The lawyers said the complaints are an attempt to end what they describe as a culture of violence and substandard education within the district. O’Brien said the lawsuit contends that the school violated the students’ Fourth Amendment rights.
“What happened should never happen to any child at any school and certainly shouldn’t have happened to these students because of their race,” he said.
The complaint cites 20 separate counts including unconstitutional policies and use of excessive force. The complaint calls for compensation for the students for damages and legal and attorneys’ fees.
Attorney Margaret Coleman said that the group of attorneys filing the suit also want to, “put Woodland Hills on notice.”
“We want to make sure these kids have a voice and [the district] understands that we are watching,” she said.
Murray resigned as principal of the high school and football coach Aug. 16. He had been on unpaid administrative leave since July 1 when the Pennsylvania Department of Education began reviewing his administrator’s certification.
The district posted the principal’s position on its website Aug. 20.
A 2009 video was released at the press conference showing former student Dominique Stotts walking down a hallway in Woodland Hills High School being escorted by then Assistant Principal Murray and School Resource Officer Shaulis. Shaulis is seen tazering Stotts after a verbal exchange. Murray stands by his side during the incident.
Stotts is not one of the five students suing the district, but Coleman said the video will be used as evidence.
“It demonstrates how long this has been going on,” she said.
Representatives from a dozen municipal councils that make up the Woodland Hills School District sent the district a letter voicing “no confidence” in the district in June.
Tina Doose, president of the Braddock Council, was one of the representatives. She is a member of the school district’s Commission on Youth Development and Learning which formed this year to study how to improve the district’s school climate.
She said Wednesday that she does not want the district to continue using school resource officers for security. She said the district also needs an equity director to confront the culture of violence.
Multiple calls to the Woodland Hills School District superintendent's office were not returned at the time of publication.
*UPDATED: Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017 at 1:36 p.m.