CP photo by Stephen Caruso
Minister Victor Muhammad speaks to a crowd of protesters outside of Woodland Hills High School.
On Monday night, Gabriel Gray stood outside Woodland Hills High School draped in Christmas lights, and a passerby might have confused his luminescence with holiday cheer. But Gray was standing vigil in search of something that can’t be bought in a store.
“'Tis the season to shine light on the truth of situations,” said Gray, a Homewood resident.
What Gray sought to illuminate was the story of Woodland Hills principal and football coach Kevin Murray, who was secretly recorded by a 14-year-old special needs student while threatening the pupil nine months ago.
Now, that same student is facing wiretapping charges, for a different recording made in September, while Murray is on administrative leave. But many in the community are rallying to the student's side.
The protesters first gathered outside the main entrance to the school, where a school-board meeting was scheduled. Wrapped in coats and hats to ward off the December cold, about 20 people chanted “educate, don’t incarcerate” while holding signs decrying Murray and displaying sound bites from the recording — like “I'll knock your [expletive] teeth down your throat” and “when we go down to court, it's your word versus mine and mine wins every time” — next to a picture of the principal’s face.
Participants included representatives of the Alliance for Police Accountability, a criminal-justice reform group; 1Hood, a community activist group; and the Education Rights Network, an activist group for special-needs students.
Brandi Fisher, president of the APA, called on Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala to drop charges against the student, saying he was “criminalized while already a victim.”
She also cited the 2014 case of Christian Stanfield
, a South Fayette High School student who was charged with wiretapping for secretly recording two students who were bullying him. Zappala spokesmen Mike Manko said at the time that the district attorney’s office did “not believe this behavior rises to the level of a citation."
“We are hoping [Zappala] will do the right thing in this case,” Fisher said.
The wiretapping charges directed at the student, however, are not related to Murray’s threats. They stem from from a separate case in September, when the student was questioned by a school employee about a violent crime without a legal guardian present, according to the boy’s lawyer
Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson denied these claims, insisting instead that the recorded conversation concerned a “non-disciplinary” issue.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is illegal
to record a conversation without the consent of both parties.
Other speakers at the rally highlighted the “intersectional issue” of special-needs students and black students in public schools getting pushed out of school — and sometimes into prison — if they get into trouble. Some also asked for the firing of Murray from Woodland Hills High School.
The protesters then headed inside to the school-board meeting, lining the back of the room with their signs. After a choir of students sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the protesters responded by singing, to the same tune, “we wish we could get some justice.”
The room was packed with Woodland Hills community members as well, some wearing “Wolverine football” sweatshirts for the school’s athletics, and many casting sidelong glances at the demonstrators.
The school board broke normal procedure to try to ease tensions in the room. Board member Tara Reis made a motion to move public comment forward from the end of the meeting. In doing so, she reminded the crowd to avoid using “aggressive or violent language.”
At Reis' remarks, the assembled protesters started to chant to fire Murray, and began leaving the room, escorted by school security.
Afterward, resident of the school district took to the open mic. Many defended Murray’s reputation, though some with reservations.
Heidi Balas, an English teacher at Woodland Hills, defended the principal's threats as a product of “when your heart is in the game and your emotions run high,” while defending Murray for his commitment to the school.
“Other principals treated [Woodland Hills] as a stepping stone,” Balas said to strong applause. “This is [Murray’s] stone.”
Among parents, the reaction was mixed. Many credited Murray, as an administrator and football coach, for his commitment to the kids and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect.
But Darneka Reed, a parent of a child in special education at Woodland Hills, and a special-education teacher herself, said Murray hadn’t been taking her child’s issues seriously, which she asked the other parents to consider.
“If that were your child, you would not appreciate that,” Reed said. In light of this, Reed thought Murray should go. The crowd’s response was tepid.
Speaking from 25 years' experience in social work, Rev. Robert Tedder, pastor of Union Baptist Church of Swissvale, tried to bridge the differences.
“I’m not here to assassinate [Murray’s] character,” Tedder said. “[But] all students, even those with behavioral problems and special needs, deserve to go to school free of harassment.”