Violent Woodland Hills incidents shed light on the role of law enforcement in schools | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Violent Woodland Hills incidents shed light on the role of law enforcement in schools

“Do we really want to turn all of our kids into criminals? That’s not what schools are for.”

In a video from March 3, 2015, then-15-year-old Ahmad Williams can be seen sitting in the main office of Woodland Hills High School, a blue binder in his lap. He had been sent there by a teacher after being disruptive in class.

Seconds later, Churchill Police Officer Steve Shaulis lifts him from the chair, wraps an arm around his neck and pushes him down a hallway before forcing him to the ground. With his head held down by Woodland Hills High School Principal Kevin Murray, Williams is tased at least two times by Shaulis and handcuffed.

Following this incident, Shaulis continued to work in the school, but this wasn’t the last time he would get physical with a student. Last month, he allegedly knocked out one of 14-year-old Que’chawn Wade’s front teeth. 

Wade had been accused of stealing a cell phone and was sent to the main office, where he can be seen in video footage talking to Shaulis before leaving the room. After an exchange of words between Wade and Shaulis in the hallway, the officer grabs Wade and pushes him back into the room and then into an office off-screen where Shaulis allegedly hit Wade in the face. 

Since the second incident, Shaulis has been removed from the school, but the recently released footage of the two incidents has sparked national outrage. Parents and activists are calling for further action in Woodland Hills, demanding justice for students at the high school. They’re also calling for the firing of Shaulis and Principal Murray.

“I cannot find one reason for officer Shaulis to become physical in any of the incidents we’ve seen,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability at a press conference where video footage of both incidents was released. “What message is this sending to kids — when they’re in an environment where they’re not only being verbally abused, but physically abused — that they will not receive any help. We are calling on our district attorney to evaluate these cases. The system is protecting predators and criminalizing children. The entire community should be standing up behind these children in that school district [who] are being abused and violently attacked.”

This isn’t the first time Woodland Hills has gained attention for its disciplinary procedures. Last year, the district was ranked in the top 10 of schools nationwide with the highest rates of out-of-school suspensions at the elementary level. And juvenile-justice experts say these incidents highlight the issues surrounding school resource officers (SROs) — police officers like Shaulis who have been contracted by districts to work in schools — and how they contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels African-American students into the justice system. 

“I’m sorry these young people and their families are going through this situation, but I’m glad these videos are coming to light,” says Harold Jordan, a senior policy advocate at the Philadelphia office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’ve been very critical of districts for bringing police into matters where they should not be. Ordinary school discipline should not be a police matter. I’m not saying all school police officers or school resource officers behave in that way, but what we’re seeing in those videos is horrifying.”

The presence of police officers in Pennsylvania schools is growing. Of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, approximately 150 have law-enforcement officers in their schools. And last year the Pennsylvania Department of Education awarded an additional $6.5 million in grants to provide training and compensation for SROs and school police officers. 

“Woodland Hills is like a lot of other schools in the country in that schools with black children and/or children who are poor are more likely to have officers placed in their schools full time,” Jordan says. “That’s what studies show.” 

And because SROs tend to be placed in schools with high populations of low-income and black students, Jordan says people often aren’t quick to reprimand officers who get physical with students.

“I think sometimes members of the general public are kind of naïve when they hear about these things, and they think, ‘Oh, it must be kids fighting, and the cops are in there breaking things up,’” Jordan says. “There’s this notion that these bad kids need to be policed. And you also have a situation where the accountability mechanisms are thin if any. It’s a volatile combination.”

But Jordan says it’s clear from the video footage that officer Shaulis acted inappropriately, and he says the call from many in the local community to have the officer fired is justified.  

“Whatever was said between the kid and the officer, it is totally inappropriate and totally in the realm of excessive force for the officer to grab the kid and throw him on the ground and drag him down the hall. And for the principal to appear to condone that behavior is in many ways reprehensible,” Jordan says. “This was not a kid who pulled a gun or a knife on an officer, and then the officer tackled him to the ground.”

And Jordan says parents in the community also have grounds to have Principal Murray fired. He says that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, school districts can be held legally liable for the discriminatory behavior of school security, and that school districts are also responsible for the behavior of all adults in their building. And Jordan says the behavior reflects a greater problem at the school district. 

“There is a school-governance problem,” Jordan says. “Woodland Hills as a school district has extraordinarily high rates of suspension, among the highest in the state. There have been programs that have been brought in and things of that sort. But this is a situation where educators have to be in control. They have a responsibility.”

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By Mars Johnson