ANN ARBOR, MI — An investigation has found that a student at Ann Arbor Public School’s claim that she and other black students were exposed to an anti-racial environment at Pioneer High School was not upheld or met the legal standard for an anti-racial environment for black students.
The investigation, launched after a black student at Pioneer filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in August 2020, also concluded that there was no justifiable cause to terminate the employment of the teacher responsible for the The focus was on the student’s allegations.
However, the investigation, conducted by law firm Dykema, was hampered by Dykema’s inability to interview the student who made the main allegations of an anti-racial climate, her mother, or other anonymous students who made allegations of alleged racism to which she was subjected were.
The report notes that student Makayla Kelsey and her mother, Charmelle Kelsey, who filed the complaint, were not made available by their attorneys with the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School to be interviewed for the investigation will. The CRLI interviewed numerous current and former Black Pioneer High students and students of color before filing the complaint that spurred the investigation on August 24, 2020.
“Her absence impaired the investigative team’s ability to hear her version of events, obtain valuable follow-up information, or assess her credibility,” said a letter addressed to the report, which was prepared by the Ann Arbor School Board President, Rebecca Lazarus, and board members.
Dykema’s report said that because the Kelseys are represented by the CRLI, they could not contact them directly, but had to ask members of the initiative if they would make them available.
“The (CRLI) repeatedly refused to make them available for interviews unless the AAPS Board of Education agreed in advance to publish this report, which the BOE was unwilling to do,” the report reads.
However, after the investigation began, several AAPS board members expressed a desire for the findings of the investigation to be made public.
In February 2020, students petitioned the teacher at the center of the allegations, Michele Macke, to have Pioneer removed her, arguing she had created an unsafe environment. Some Pioneer students were unhappy that the teacher was allowed back into the classroom after a student’s arm was grabbed trying to catch up on a missed assignment, resulting in the teacher being placed on temporary leave.
Despite a police investigation that resulted in no charges being approved by the Washtenaw County Attorney’s Office, students believe the incident was an example of the teacher’s inappropriate handling of a black student in the classroom.
The Dykema report also notes that the CRLI failed to provide other Pioneer students from Makayla Kelsey’s class who, in the original letter setting out the complaint against Pioneer, made allegations that “apparently influenced the conduct of the investigation.” “.
It also notes that those who made anonymous claims in a 14-page letter describing the alleged racism the student and other black students faced at the school were not made available for interview by CRLI were made without any assurance that the report would be made public prior to the initiation of the investigation.
“Whether or not it changed some or all of our findings, we can only speculate,” the report said. “However, it is extraordinary when someone alleges discrimination, requests that an investigation be conducted, speaks to the media about the issue, but refuses to participate in a subsequent investigation.”
The investigation failed to confirm a number of the claims made against Macke by Makayla Kelsey and other anonymous students, including her claims that Macke grabbed her. Of 11 students from the class who agreed to be interviewed, “most said they had not seen or heard anything,” the report says.
“According to those interviewed, which included the entire PHS administration team and many members of the AAPS administration, most of the statements in the letter, aside from Makayla’s account of being grabbed by Macke, were new to them; the other statements had been largely unheard of by respondents and, as far as they knew, Macke was held in high esteem by students, parents, and staff; Also in Macke’s personnel file there is no evidence of any other complaints against her,” the report reads.
The 74-page report, now available online, also concluded, noting:
- Some members of the community, Pioneer employees, students and alumni have a perception that there is an anti-racial environment for Black students at Pioneer.
- Some employees, students and alumni believe they have been victims of racism or discrimination at Pioneer, “which in and of itself is a significant problem.”
- Because of claims about the teacher being the focus of the student’s claims, and other allegations of racism by Pioneer employees and students, many Pioneer employees fear they will be accused of racism if they take things like taking justifiable disciplinary action against a black student to punish a black student for not turning in his homework or for failing to excuse a black student’s absence.
- Pioneer High School has strived to have a curriculum that is not “Eurocentric”.
- Pioneer High School has made efforts to increase the number of black staff, but while its administration is made up entirely of members of underrepresented groups, its teaching staff is still disproportionately white.
Dykema made recommendations for AAPS based on the perceptions and beliefs of those who raised issues with the school’s racial climate, including a proposed grievance and investigation system; the appointment of a Complaints and Investigation Officer; implementation of a share plan; Teacher and staff training and policy updates.
A six-page letter from AAPS outlining the “next steps” for the district acknowledges that perceptions by some in the AAPS community “reveal that a racially challenging school and district environment exists,” demonstrating an “ongoing and represents significant challenge in work to move forward.”
The letter outlines several steps the district plans to address the racial climate at the school and throughout the district, including:
- Implementation of a strategic district equity plan
- Implement and adapt a central system for reporting racial concerns
- Transforming teaching, school and leadership practices for justice
- Ensure diverse staff and faculty representation throughout the AAPS
“Effective learning and working can only take place in environments where everyone is welcome, hugged and celebrated for who they are, and relationships of trust are nurtured,” Superintendent Jeanice Swift said in the letter. “Establishing clearly defined systems to deal with problems when they arise in schools is a priority to ensure there are clear systems of caring, responsibility and accountability.”
The Dykema report summarized that diversity, equity and inclusion has long been an important issue for AAPS and is the subject of ongoing communication with faculty, staff and community members.
“We are therefore confident that the content of this report will be seriously examined and discussed,” the report says.
Dykema interviewed more than 70 people with relevant knowledge of the issues raised in the original complaint or, as the investigation progressed, issues raised in previous interviews. Respondents included Pioneer staff and faculty, teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators. Also interviewed were five current Pioneer students, Pioneer alumni, community members, parents, those who emailed Dykema, and faculty and administrators from two other AAPS schools.
Charmelle Kelsey, the CRLI and representatives from the AAPS Black Parents and Students Support Group were unavailable to comment on this story.
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