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The Woodland Hills High School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Image of a group of protestors outside of a school building holding signs to show solidarity to the injustice committed to a disabled student.

The intersection of race and disability is often ignored when we discuss the injustices that disadvantage disabled students of color within our schools.  This oversight can mean grave consequences to students who live within these margins.  The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts disabled students of color (especially Black disabled students), yet very few are addressing what occurs in our schools; a recent incident in Pittsburgh caught my attention as being yet another example of how we are failing to advocate for and protect Black disabled students.  

On Twitter, disability rights advocate Dustin Gibson shared details about a Black disabled student at Woodland Hills High being victimized and dehumanized by his principal.  Dustin is a revolutionary in training in Pittsburgh that has centered his identity as a Black man with bipolar disorder in his work.  He builds with people impacted by systems both locally and nationally.  Organizing with the perspective that the people closest to the impact are closest to the solution, many of his efforts are grassroot.  

I asked Dustin if he would tell the story of the Woodland Hills incident, the connections between racism and ableism, and why Black disabled lives matter.  Here are his words:  

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My people are dying. Our murders are being recorded and uploaded to the world. Our Disabled identities are being erased by people that claim to seek justice for us. Those same identities are being used to justify our executions. We are methodically being shuffled through institutions that were not built with our bodies in mind. We have been transformed from patients at Georgia Lunatic Asylum to subjects at Tuskegee and now inmates at Rikers. The discourse is riddled with code words for drapetomania. The uplifting of this violence goes beyond opposing police brutality or advocating against school-to-prison pipelines. The complicitness lies within our failure to acknowledge the normalized violence that is enacted daily through subtle messages that inform the way we view Black Disabled bodies and minds. The language has become thoughts that rationalize actions to funnel Black Disabled children from classrooms to courtrooms every single day. These are the outcomes of a system that is functioning the way it was designed to – nothing is broken.

The pathologizing of disability and race has assisted in creating systems that do not recognize the humanness of Black folks with disabilities. A purgatory-like space has been legislated to “protect” us from ourselves and insulate society from fallacious concerns of threat. As Black Disabled people, we have been otherized to an extent that allows for us to be perversely loved for our differences, but prevented from having voice in the direction of our own lives, much like domesticated animals… dehumanized. The paternalistic views of ownership over our bodies mitigates what feels like the hunting and caging of our people. Black Disabled bodies are the crux of the prison industrial complex, and the majority of the people that become hashtags before entering a courtroom.

Woodland Hills High School principal, Kevin Murray, has displayed a comprehensive understanding of his role in this process. While threatening a 14 year old student in the special education program, he stated that he didn’t “need the police, man. I’ll knock your fucking teeth down your throat;” he then affirmed his privilege by telling the student that “when we go down to court it’s your word versus mine and mines wins every time.”  In stating this, Mr. Murray acknowledged that the police had the authority to brutalize the student and threatened to do the same, with impunity. After repeatedly being threatened by Mr. Murray, the student understood that his claims of abuse would lack credence without evidence. The student now faces possible felony wiretapping charges for recording this. He also faces charges for another recorded conversation. This is the moment that could alter the trajectory of his life. This is how our children become victims of a system that is rooted in slavery.

The abuse that transpired at Woodland Hills High School is not an isolated incident. It is an interconnected derivative of a value system that is embedded within the fabric of our country. Denying the existence of ableism and racism is an arduous task, but ignoring the latter half of the words is not. This forces us into redundancy by conveying that the actions of Mr. Murray were not just a moment of bigotry, but a product of systemic ableism and racism. Not only did the highest ranking administrator violently threaten a 14 year old, but no one believed it happened. It is important that Mr. Murray be held accountable along with the systems that are protecting him. While supporting the student in protest, we were met with the presence of police officers and their dogs. This transpired less than a 15 minute drive from the spot where Bruce Kelley Jr. was followed by 10 officers, shot 7 times, and killed after defending himself against a canine. Their tools of protection are being used against us as tools of oppression.

What lives matter to systems such as the criminal legal system is not an argument of semantics; it is a matter of life and death for the lives that have been proven to matter less. Our ability to breathe is contingent upon mechanisms of accountability that depend on evidence without a reasonable doubt. For Black folks with disabilities, our experiences are inherently unfathomable, which leaves us vulnerable to the discretion of those with institutional power. The erasure of Disabled narratives have constructed a fight for justice that seems as if it is “just us.” This is the result of experiencing oppression from multiple systems simultaneously. The constructs of ableism and racism intrinsically denotes the presence of a system. The perspective of system agents such as educators and police officers often overshadow the voices of the people that are being impacted the most. The way we view ourselves internally and in the context of a constructed society is the key to learning to love, be loved and building love. Our lives should not depend on funds given to white-washed organizations to research our experiences. Training will not change intentions. All Disabled people do not speak for us. All Black people do not speak for us. We can no longer wait for data to confirm our narratives. We are acutely aware that murder is possible, incarceration is likely, and violence is inevitable. We will never receive justice from an unjust system. We must seek liberation through #DisabilitySolidarity.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of the Education Rights Network.)

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To learn more about what has transpired with this case, listen to the audio recording of the incident, read the news reports and statements from the principal’s lawyer, and the media release about the protest rally organized by the Alliance for Police Accountability, One Pittsburgh, and Education Rights Network to address the violation of the student:


Audio of principal threatening student
– CBS Pittsburgh
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFzDEMZLbOc


News reports:

Special Education Student Records Principal During Alleged Expletive & Threat-Filled Tirade – CBS Pittsburgh, 11/29/2016
http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2016/11/29/woodland-hills-high-school-principal-recording/

Special needs student records shocking audio of abusive principal after ‘no one believes’ his claims – RawStory, 11/30/2016
http://www.rawstory.com/2016/11/special-needs-student-records-shocking-audio-of-abusive-principal-after-no-one-believes-his-claims/

Residents criticize, defends behavior of Woodland Hills high school principal – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/5/2016
http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2016/12/05/Community-defends/stories/201612060104


Lawyer Statement from principal:

Lawyer:  Woodland Hills principal recorded threatening teen didn’t mean harm – Observer-Reporter, 12/6/2016
http://www.observer-reporter.com/20161206/lawyer_woodland_hills_principal_recorded_threatening_teen_didnx2019t_mean_harm

Woodland Hills principal seeks to calm outrage over threats – TRIB Live, 12/6/2016
http://triblive.com/local/allegheny/11596883-74/murray-district-attorney


Media release for the December 5th, 2016 rally held at Woodland Hills High School to support student:

Local organizations to hold rally and press conference to support Woodland Hills teen

Woodland Hills, PA – District Attorney Zappala is re-victimizing a 14-year-old child with felony wiretapping charges for recording a school employee interrogating him on school grounds about a criminal investigation without a parent present.  This same student also recorded his principal threatening him on school grounds in an unrelated incident in April.  In that recording, Principal Kevin Murray can be heard saying, “I’ll punch you right in your face, dude,” and “I’ll knock your (expletive) teeth down your throat. When we go down to court, it’s your word versus mine. And mine wins every time.”

Now, the child who was threatened on school grounds and interrogated without a parent present is the one being charged—not the principal.

Tonight, the Alliance for Police Accountability, One Pittsburgh, and Education Rights Network will hold a rally and press conference to oppose the injustice being inflicted on this child prior to the Woodland Hills School Board meeting.

The Office of the District Attorney, led by DA Zappala, has full discretion to decide what, if any, charges to bring in an individual case. Prosecutorial discretion is a power that the voters of Allegheny County have entrusted to Mr. Zappala and our hope is that he would use it to stand with a child who has been emotionally abused in school,”  said Tiffany

Sizemore-Thompson, Board President of Alliance for Police Accountability. “School should be a sanctuary where children can learn and grow. When they are harmed by an adult in that situation, and try to protect themselves as a result, the office entrusted with protecting and advocating for victims should be standing beside them. We urge Mr. Zappala to end any further consideration of charging this courageous child.”

Pamela Harbin, of the Education Rights Network said, “Our parents are very concerned that Woodland Hills School District has violated the rights of a student with a disability, who has protection under the law.  This child has the right to be emotionally and physically safe in school–the school district has failed him.”

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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