Stelisha Foreman, a long-time resident of the area, came to the East Lansing Public Library’s Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday, Jan. 18, to tell the board what happened a week earlier to her two sons.
As detailed further below, on Jan. 11, library staff misidentified one of the boys as responsible for an October 2022 act of vandalism. Library Director Kristin Shelley then tried unsuccessfully to eject the boys from the premises, telling them they were trespassing. She then called the police on them.
At the Jan. 18 meeting, Foreman called for Library Director Kristin Shelley to be removed from her position. She named Shelley’s behavior on Jan. 11 racist and unacceptable.
Her younger son, she said, was racially profiled by Shelley because he is Black and has dreadlocks. She remains shocked that Shelley called the police to throw her sons out of the library.
“This could have not ended well for my family,” she told the Board. “This is not something you just dismiss.”
Foreman’s outrage and disappointment were supported by many people in the room.
That included Ameenah Asante and Pamela Smith, the two Black trustees on the five-member Library Board of Trustees.
Under the City Charter, board members are appointed by City Council and “charged and entrusted with the management, supervision and control of all City library facilities.”
At the Jan. 18 meeting, listening to what Foreman’s family had gone through, Library Trustee Asante was moved to tears, saying they will be forever haunted by this experience.
“[The family] will never forget that day,” Asante said, “the day the police was called on the child. It never leaves you to be wrongly accused of something. It never leaves you. They will reflect on that every single moment of their lives.”
Asante said she worries about her own Black son experiencing the same, after she thought East Lansing had moved forward towards a less racist culture.
Trustee Smith said she had not even learned of what had happened a week before until an hour before the meeting.
“Now you have these two people of color on the board,” Smith said, “but we weren’t aware at all of the situation that was going on.”
Smith said that just because the library “has a mural outside with Black children on it and [the library has] two Black trustees does not change the situation.” She said the problem “goes deeper” than any policy of the library.
While Asante and Smith pushed for action on the matter at the Jan. 18 meeting, after over an hour of discussion, the board laid out no clear plan for dealing with the matter.
Discussion among the board and Shelley led to apparent agreement that the board should possibly form a two-member committee to investigate and study the events. (Under the Open Meetings Act, board members can only meet in groups smaller than a quorum to do library oversight work, which means at most two library trustees on a board committee.) The committee would likely also look at policies and procedures.
But such a committee presumably would not be appointed and given a charge until at least the next meeting, a month from now. There is no plan for another meeting before then.
And, while there was talk of wanting much community input, the board did not suggest that anyone other than two trustees would comprise the investigatory committee.
The library director called the police on a pair of Black teen brothers after she misidentified one of them as being responsible for an earlier event.
Last week, a team of journalists from the East Lansing High School newspaper, Portrait, broke the story about the events of Jan. 11.
That afternoon, the younger of Foreman’s two involved sons was confronted in the teen room by Library Director Shelley and Assistant Director Brice Bush. They thought he had been one of two teens who allegedly set fire to the men’s bathroom wall in the library in October.
Not realizing she had misidentified the youth, Shelley presented Foreman’s younger son with an “exclusion letter” – a letter telling him he was not allowed on the library property – and told him he had to leave because he was legally trespassing.
The boy and his older brother, both ELHS students, became upset and refused to leave. The boys called their mother, who had to leave work to come deal with the situation.
No one has said the boys made any verbal threat of physical harm. But Shelley called the police on the boys, claiming she felt threatened. She has given no public account of what the supposed “threat” was, even after being pushed to speak about the event by Asante at the Jan. 18 meeting.
According to Portrait’s reporting, “When the mother [Stelisha Foreman] arrived, administrators came out with a picture from the security cameras [from the October event]. The crowd that had now gathered [including East Lansing Police officers] looked at the photo and some became frustrated after concurring that the picture did not match the student.”
Foreman told the board that Bush, the assistant director, then realized there had been a misidentification and apologized “profusely” to those in the room.
But, Foreman said, Shelley did not apologize. Foreman told the board Shelley had “the audacity” to claim she is not racist because she is married to a Black man.Portrait’s initial investigation – centered on the work of reporter Allison Treanor, who was on the scene for hours and interviewed the students present – supports the details in Foreman’s account. The only part of Foreman’s account Shelley disputed to the board is on the issue of whether she apologized. She said she did.
At the meeting on Jan. 18, Assistant Director Bush wept, saying she is very upset that she might be seen as racist and expressing regret at what happened. She said she became a public librarian “because I really believe in providing free access without judgment.”
But pressed to explain what happened and why she called the police, Shelley deflected blame from herself, saying the problem is that the library has not gotten enough support from the community for dealing with the sometimes unruly teens who come to the library after school. (She told the board later in the meeting that an average of 51 students were at the library on school days during the month of December.)
Shelley said exclusion letters have been used in several instances to ban students who have caused problems. These involved alleged cases of bicycle theft, intoxication and the October incident involving the blackened wall in the bathroom. Shelley did not explain who makes the decision to issue an exclusion letter or whether such a ban ever ends.
Shelley said she wanted the board to study what other libraries do to manage this kind of concern and to come up with new policies and maybe provide more training in diversity, equity and inclusion to library staff.
Her responses left some of those in attendance cold, based on what they told ELi after the close of the meeting.
Wednesday’s meeting was heavily attended.
Because the reporting by Portrait has been widely shared (including by ELi on its social media channels), the board’s Jan. 18 meeting was much more heavily attended than usual, with about 25 people in the audience where normally there is one or two.
Those present included City Attorney Tony Chubb (sitting with the board), the city’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Elaine Hardy, Councilmember Dana Watson, East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko, Portrait reporters Allison Treanor and Adan Quan, and a number of library employees. (Disclosure: Quan is a member of ELi’s Board of Directors.) City Councilmember George Brookover, designated liaison to the board, also attended, arriving about 20 minutes into the tense meeting, after Foreman had had to leave to attend to a death in her family. He said the city council “will be reviewing your deliberations and actions with great interest.”
Public comment was initially limited to two minutes per person, including for Foreman. But the trustees decided to allow a second round of comments and to let Foreman speak as needed.
Sam Granger, who identified himself as a regular patron of the library, said, “It’s really disappointing to see a library engage in that kind of racial profiling.”
Another patron, Karen Brown, echoed Granger, saying she was also “really disappointed” and that she wonders, as a white person, if this was a case of “all Black people look alike” to white people. “I hope things are changed,” she said.
Treanor, the Portrait reporter, told the board that many students who come to the library after school have no other safe place to be until their parents come home from work. She said there was “a continuous problem of Black children being targeted” at the library, based on her interviews with many students.
Treanor also said she and her colleagues had worked hard to get information from Shelley but had struggled to do so. She noted Shelley provided ELi a statement 12 hours before she provided a modified version to Portrait, even though Portrait had asked earlier and more times than ELi. (Shelly’s statement referred to the matter as “a very unfortunate incident” and said she called the police “per the library’s code of conduct.”)
Portrait editor Adan Tomas Quan told the Board his team is “not looking to place blame” but that he found what happened “shocking.” He called for a change in policy.
Scott Drapalik said he is a library employee and he admires and appreciates what Shelley and Bush have done on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, from gender-neutral bathrooms to a “diversity audit” of the collections to the new mural on the library’s front wall. He said all this demonstrates Shelley’s “ongoing commitment to be welcoming to all people.”
Several people in the audience raised sharp questions about the way the library’s “exclusion letters” are being used to ban young people, especially teens of color. They questioned the lack of due process and what they said was a pattern of wrong identifications, with one commenter saying people “are being accused because of color of skin.”
Board members expressed pain over what they were hearing, but presented no clear plan for dealing with the event.
Board President Polly Sync said the board “shares what we heard from the public about making the library a safe and welcoming place for everyone.”
She said it was her hope “we can explore if our policies and procedures can help to guide us on how the Code of Conduct is used, and make this predictable, consistent, and used only when necessary.” Sync said she did not see this as having been a case where someone was threatening harm.
Trustee Asante, whose own family is depicted in the new library mural, said she was born and raised in East Lansing but, “It has always felt in many, many ways that it is illegal to be Black in East Lansing.” She said when her ninth-grade son saw the Portrait report, he texted her that he was so glad it hadn’t happened to him “yet.”
“Whatever we do here as a board, whatever we decide as a board,” Asante said, “it cannot be a temporary fix.” She also objected, like Smith, to “not having [gotten] the full story.”
Trustee Amy Zaagman agreed that “it is not the words on the paper, but it is the actions that come behind them” that matters.
Trustee Diane Goddeeris agreed, saying she was upset to hear all people do not “feel safe” at the library. She suggested the group “start with a subcommittee” to obtain input and meet with the students and others.
Sync supported the idea of a subcommittee and also asked about more training for library staff and looking into other libraries’ approaches.
“Personally, I want the board to tackle the question of when it is appropriate to call the police,” said Sync, an action that “should be reserved truly for an issue of imminent harm to self or others.”
Shelley agreed there “is a lot of work to do.” Her staff has been through nine months of DEI training, but she welcomes more.
Shelley insisted, as she did in her statements to ELi and Portrait, that she had apologized to the family.
“It’s not enough,” she said to the board about her apology. “I fully appreciate that. I also know that we have asked the community, we have asked people for help” with the afterschool issue.
“I don’t ever want to live in a community where people aren’t comfortable coming into the public library,” Shelley said. “It hurts me deeply.”
Shelley said she was “absolutely open to changing how we do things.” But, she said, she didn’t want security or armed officers in the building and she didn’t want to ban unaccompanied teens, as happens in some other communities.
Sync closed the discussion by saying, “We are taking this seriously and this is going to be an ongoing dialogue with the community.”
Correction notice: This article was amended on April 14, 2023, to correct the spelling of Foreman’s last name. ELi also amended the identification of Foreman’s long-term residency from East Lansing to the East Lansing area.