ANN ARBOR, MI — It was two months ago on Aug. 24 when a Black student at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, alleging she and other Black students face a racially hostile environment at the school.
The student, her family and many community members held a Black Lives Matter protest outside Pioneer High School Saturday afternoon. The group listened to speakers near the front of Pioneer High, then marched along the streets surrounding the school.
Charmelle Kelsey, the mother of the student involved in the incident, said the community has grown weary of the inaction by the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ Board of Education and are demanding progress forward. There has been no communication between Kelsey and the school board she said, which is upsetting. MLive/The Ann Arbor News is not naming the student involved in the complaint because she is a minor.
“But I’m not surprised because that’s what I’ve been getting this whole year, dealing with the school board and teachers. I’ve been getting ignored this whole time,” Kelsey said. “I feel like they’re just turning a blind eye and kind of ignoring it and hopefully it goes away.”
Parents want investigation into racial climate at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School
Kelsey and her daughter are represented by the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School, which filed a complaint in August. Along with the complaint, a 14-page letter was filed describing the alleged racism the student and other Black students have faced at the school, including how one specific teacher:
- Insulted Black students and their parents in front of the class.
- Humiliated Black students who are struggling in math by putting their grades on a “Smart Board” for all to see in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
- Is hostile to students who are members of the Black Student Union as well as its faculty advisors.
- Uses coded language against Black students, calling them “criminals” and “delinquents.”
- Refused to bring her class to the Black History Month assembly because it was a “waste of time” and complained that it didn’t focus enough on how white people made contributions to Black people
- Touched Black students in a hostile manner without their consent.
In February, students petitioned that teacher Michele Macke, be removed at Pioneer, arguing she’s created an unsafe environment. Some were unhappy Macke was allowed back in the classroom after a student was grabbed by the arm while trying to retrieve an assignment she missed, leading the teacher to being temporarily put on leave.
Despite a police investigation that resulted in no charges being authorized by the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, students believe the incident was an example of the teacher’s inappropriate handling of a Black student in the classroom.
Black student alleges racially hostile environment at Ann Arbor high school in civil rights complaint
The letter suggests that the board and Pioneer High address institutional racism at Pioneer by bringing in an external civil rights organization to conduct a thorough investigation of the atmosphere Black students face, and make recommendations; creating a system that encourages students to make complaints about bias; and terminating the employment of a teacher who has been particularly hostile to Black students.
UM Civil Rights Litigation Initiative attorney Martese Johnson said the initiative’s first priority is to make the findings of the investigation public.
“We want it to be public because if the report isn’t public, it makes it a lot more difficult for community members to actually hold the school board accountable for the findings that the law firm has come to,” Johnson said.
In attendance at the event was AAPS board member Jeff Gaynor, who is running for reelection in November. He said that the board would wait until the investigation is complete to decide its next steps but is personally insisting that the investigation be open to the public.
“I want this public, but we need to wait for the investigation,” Gaynor said. “We can’t just judge based on allegations. The investigation has to be thorough, and it has to be made public.”
AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift released a statement Saturday evening that said, in part, “In the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS), we stand firm against any and all acts of bias, bigotry and racism. The AAPS has received the August 24, 2020, letter from the University of Michigan Civil Rights Litigation Initiative alleging racism at Pioneer High School. In the AAPS, we take this situation and the matters outlined in that letter very seriously. All of us are deeply disturbed by the content of the allegations. We are committed to a full and thorough investigation of those matters as we understand the important value each child brings and are deeply committed to equity and opportunity for each and every student we serve.”
The statement said the district has hired the law firm of Dykema Gossett to “conduct a full and independent investigation,” but no findings or conclusions have been reached yet.
“We are committed to address all situations of racism that may arise, without fear, so that our black and brown children, and all students, are fully supported,” the statement continued. “We want all students to have every benefit to learn and thrive in our schools and so that all children are educated in inclusive and supportive classroom and school environments. The work to eliminate racist attitudes and practices in the AAPS is both a moral obligation required of each of us individually, as well as a collective imperative in our organization and across our community.”
Several speakers acknowledged that there is racism within AAPS, and Johnson said that racism in school isn’t just an issue for the Kelsey’s.
“This is a larger, systemic issue that is pervasive within Pioneer, and it’s something that, throughout generations and cycles at this school, has oppressed Black students and made their time at the high school significantly more difficult than their peers,” Johnson said. “Until we make some reforms, this is going to continue to happen.”
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