Residents criticize, defend behavior of Woodland Hills high school principal
December 5, 2016 11:14 PM
Protesters gather outside a Woodland Hills school board meeting Monday night demanding disciplinary action against junior/senior high school principal Kevin Murray.
Paradise Gray of One Hood speaks as protesters call for the firing of Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School principal Kevin Murray. They gathered outside a school board meeting Monday.
Protesters call for the firing of Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School principal Kevin Murray after an audio recording surfaced of him purportedly threatening to punch a student and “knock his teeth down his throat.”
Local minister Victor Muhammad, of Muhammad Mosque 22 in Wilkinsburg, speaks to protesters calling for the firing of Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School principal Kevin Murray gather outside a school board meeting that was held at the school Monday night.
By Elizabeth Behrman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Critics and defenders of the Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School principal squared off during a school board meeting Monday night, less than a week after an audio recording surfaced of him purportedly threatening to punch a student and “knock his teeth down his throat.”
Parents, teachers and students came to the defense of Kevin Murray, praising his abilities and passion for the district, while a crowd of more than two dozen others called on the board to take appropriate disciplinary action.
“The fact that this incident has occurred gives concern that there is a culture that tolerates and condones that behavior,” the Rev. Robert Tedder of Union Baptist Church told the school board. Even if Mr. Murray was acting out of character, he said, “Those actions are not acceptable and they can’t be tolerated. They can’t be justified.”
Mr. Murray was placed on administrative leave last week while the school district and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office investigate the allegations made by the 14-year-old student. The student’s attorney, Todd Hollis, described his client as a “special needs” student and released audio of the April incident that the teen recorded on his cell phone.
In it, a man identified as Mr. Murray can be heard threatening to punch the student. Later, Mr. Murray warns the teen that if the matter ever went to court, the principal’s word would be believed “every time.”
The Woodland Hills school board did not take action Monday. Superintendent Alan Johnson said he spoke with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and was asked to wait to make any decisions until the DA’s office conducted its own investigation.
The student’s parents asked that the teen be excused from classes for now, and the district agreed, Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Hollis said last week that he filed a private criminal complaint against Mr. Murray and intends to file a lawsuit. Mike Manko, spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said no private criminal complaint had been approved.
The case coincides with an upcoming hearing for the 14-year-old in Allegheny County Juvenile Court, where he faces a charge of violating state wiretapping laws in an unrelated incident. Mr. Hollis said his client used his phone to record a conversation with a school counselor who was questioning him about the killing of one of his friends. That recording was later posted to Facebook.
Before Monday’s meeting, about two dozen members of activist groups One Pittsburgh, the Education Rights Network and the Alliance for Police Accountability rallied outside the high school, asking Mr. Zappala to drop the wiretapping charges against the boy and not to charge him during the latest incident.
“The behavior and the actions of the principal were threatening,” said Angel Gober, a member of One Pittsburgh. “He was bullying that child. That is not how we treat our students. Adults shouldn’t talk to children like that. I don’t care how upset you get.”
The group was asked to leave about 15 minutes after the meeting started, when they began chanting, “fire principal Murray.”
Many others came to Mr. Murray’s defense, including teachers, students and members of the football team.
They described the alumnus of Woodland Hills as a devoted educator and assistant football coach who “never gives up” on troubled or struggling students. Mr. Murray was hired in 2009 as a dean of students. He was named assistant principal in 2010 and principal in 2014. He has helped the district reform its disciplinary methods and reduce suspensions and expulsions, Mr. Johnson said.
“Kevin tries over and over again trying to help students, trying to get through to them,” said Woodland Hills football coach George Novak. “He’s not perfect; he made a mistake and he’s the first to admit that.”
Heidi Balas, an English teacher and coach at the high school, said the words spoken on the recording are “the antithesis of his character.”
“Our principal deserves the chance to make amends for an emotional mistake that any of us could have made,” she said.
Elizabeth Behrman: Lbehrman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.