Former Students at Pittsburgh-Area High School Settle Lawsuit Alleging Physical Abuse and Tasing by School Resource Officers

Video shot from Woodlawn Hills

Five black students and their parents who filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that a Pittsburgh-area school allowed them to be physically assaulted, cursed, and shocked with stun guns, have settled the case, pending a judge’s approval.

The federal suit filed in August 2017, by five former black students at Woodlawn Hills and their families, asserts that white school administrators fostered a brutal culture of abuse and discrimination and that they even filed criminal charges against some to cover their actions up.

The former students, some of whom have emotional and behavioral issues, will split more than $500,000 if the settlement is approved by a judge. The agreement also stipulates a new high school principal and a new superintendent be named.

The lawsuit specifically names the Churchill Borough, Dynasty Security, former principal Kevin Murray, former superintendent Alan Johnson, and former school resource officer Stephen Shaulis.

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.

A video in 2010 shows a behavioral 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 The student was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, the lawsuit said, but charges were withdrawn after a district attorney reviewed the video.

In 2017, Shaulis was accused of punching and knocking out the tooth of a 14-year-old freshman accused of stealing a cellphone. Another video surfaced shortly after of Shaulis body-slamming a 15-year-old student in 2015 and shocking him with a stun gun.

An audio recording was also released of former principal Kevin Murray allegedly threatening to punch a 14-year-old special education student in the face and ‘‘knock your . . . teeth down your throat.’’
The district attorney’s office declined to charge Murray, who resigned shortly before the lawsuit was filed.

The AP reports that parents have long maintained that schools—especially for those children with special supports or needs—rely too heavily on poorly trained, and perhaps rabidly racist school resource officers.

A CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh reports that the basic school resource officer training is 40 hours. Advanced training is an additional 24 hours, and covers topics like understanding the teen brain, threat response, drug trends and social media.

In August, and despite these widely reported incidents, the Woodland Hills school board unanimously approved to continue their relationships with school resource officers in the Churchill and Rankin municipalities through June, though the cops will no longer be able to carry Tasers on district property and will be dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt instead of police uniforms.

“We don’t want police in our schools, because our children are afraid,” East Pittsburgh resident Erica Yesko told board members before the vote, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Our children are not in a thriving environment, because they’re so afraid of getting suspended or getting hurt by a police officer, and no one is saying anything about it.”

New school district superintendent James Harris, who was hired in August, said the district has tried to change the atmosphere and the relationship between students and school resource officers.

“There has been a huge difference at the high school and a big part of that is the change in leadership, the new principal,” he said. “Our disciplinary referrals are way down as a result.”

Harris said the officers are now only called in when the principal decides they’re needed or in cases of outside intruders or school safety threats as opposed to minor infractions such as calling a teacher a name or using inappropriate language. He says none of which has been necessary so far this school year.

“All children-regardless of race, gender, or disability are entitled to an education free of violence and abuse. Not only fundamental constitutional rights but common sense underlies that promise,” attorney Timothy O’Brien wrote in a statement.

Here’s an idea—get the police out of our kids’ schools. Are they protecting us, or do we need protection from them?