Those infamous videos of Woodland Hills students either being tackled, put in a headlock, lifted up against a locker, slammed to the ground, etc., by a school resource officer or another adult in an authoritative capacity have been viewed countless times, in countless areas of the country—such as Berks County, Pa., some four hours away.
By an educator, a superintendent of schools, who couldn’t believe what he was watching.
“I have kids, so when I saw the videos, I saw my son,” James P. Harris Jr. told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Aug. 15. “And I couldn’t figure out why the principal wasn’t in between that child and the police officer.”
Harris, who has a 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, began to follow the Woodland Hills School District more closely, and “I was just reading the stories, and I couldn’t understand, working with schools (and advocating for children), why they weren’t defending the kids.
“So when the job became available, I knew the recruiting firm and I called them and said, ‘I want to go to Woodland Hills.’”
‘You’re going to see a much different Woodland Hills this upcoming
James P. Harris Jr.
Months later, here we are. Harris, who was the superintendent of the Daniel Boone Area School District in Berks County, got his wish. And the Woodland Hills School Board got theirs, too.
“Our board talks a lot about culture change, and we were looking for a person to be the leader in that change of culture in the district and change of mindset in the way that we view our mission,” board president Jamie Glasser told the New Pittsburgh Courier exclusively. “That was the key thing we were looking for, was someone to be our leader, and I think we found that in Mr. Harris.”
Harris was officially sworn-in as Woodland Hills School District superintendent during a board meeting, Aug. 15, in front of a roomful of spectators. The board vote was 8-0, with one board member, Jeff Hanchett, absent.
The position became available following the resignation of Alan Johnson, who had served in the district in various roles for seven years.
Harris’ contract is for three years, with a starting base salary of $150,000.
As the Courier reported in its Aug. 8 edition, Harris was a former Military Policeman for six years, worked as an investigator for the New Jersey Treasury Department and in the marketing department at Coca-Cola before switching careers to education. Harris became the Chief Operating Officer for Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation and Dayton Public Schools and was Business Operations Manager for Breakthrough Charter Network in Cleveland. After a brief stint with the Philadelphia School District, he served as superintendent in the Daniel Boone Area School District for the last three years.
“I think he is unconventional, he’s coming from a business background,” said board member Chardae Seligsohn. She touted Harris’ relatability, and how his business background can relate to students by giving them guidance on a variety of professions to pursue after high school.
Following the board meeting, Harris was quick to establish his belief in having armed officers in school buildings. But, “they’re not armed for the students, they’re armed in case an intruder comes in and they have to defend the students and the school,” Harris told reporters.
Harris then told the Courier exclusively: “We feel that some of the discipline has been turned over to the police when it should be back into the schools, that we can handle. We all have to stay in our lane and follow our role.”
Harris was steadfast in his assertion that “you’re going to see a much different Woodland Hills this upcoming school year.” Harris, meeting and greeting parents and students following the 90-minute board meeting, said he’s ready to tackle the challenges that’s plagued Woodland Hills in recent years—shooting deaths of students, a former high school principal who was secretly recorded verbally threatening a student, school resource officers alleged to have knocked the teeth out of a 14-year-old student, and declining enrollment.
“My main goal right now is that anyone who has pulled their child out of Woodland Hills and put them in a charter school, come back; it’s not the same place anymore,” Harris said. “I will give you a personal tour of whatever school your child is going to.”
His next goal? “Making it safe,” Harris said. “Safety should be a given that you can come to school without fear of having charges placed against you. That’s history. That’s not going to happen anymore.”
In the past few weeks, the district hired a new high school principal, Phillip K. Woods, the former principal at West Mifflin Area High School. Harris, 49, told the Courier he’s anxious to work with Woods, and that the two have the same lofty goals for the students.
“We have high expectations of these students because we know, when they leave here, people are going to expect things from them. And we can’t give up on them.”
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