Monday night saw an East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education meeting like no other in recent memory.
The room was overflowing, with attendees filling the meeting room and spilling into the hallway and an adjoining room. And the mood was tense and emotional as teachers, students and parents wept and decried ongoing violence at the high school.
Even the schools’ superintendent broke down crying.
But speakers were met by a generally cool reaction from newly-elected Board President Kath Edsall.
Edsall shocked a number of those in attendance when she told speakers that “saying ‘I’m scared’ is not helpful,” and when she suggested she needed concrete ideas rather than more emotional testimony.
A now-traumatized math teacher broke up a violent fight on Thursday night only to find some of the same students at school Friday morning.
In one of the most notable moments of a long public comment period, East Lansing High School math teacher Madelyn Zink spoke about her experience discovering a student had brought a gun to school property.
Last Thursday (Jan. 19), Zink helped break up a fight that involved close to a dozen students. The fight came after an ELHS basketball game. The gun fell out of a student’s backpack right in front of Zink as people were leaving the scene.
ELHS student Nick Chenault was in his car in the high school parking lot when the fight broke out Thursday night. He saw an overwhelmed Zink and got out of his car to help break up the brawl.
“The only thing I could think of was get out, help one of the best teachers we have in this school,” he told the school board. “There was a firearm within four feet of me. I had no clue.”
Chenault recounted seeing ELHS Principal Shannon Mayfield hit in the back of the head trying to stop the fight.
“I have a little sister, [and] she’s a freshman,” he said. “I don’t want her to go to this school anymore.”
Zink told the school board that just nine hours after the Thursday-night fight, she went back to the school to teach and found herself in the building with some of the same students who had been fighting just the night before.
A couple of hours later, another large fight broke out in the hallway. Much of the recent violence, including the fight after the basketball game, has involved the same two groups of students. Teachers and students said they are tired of it all – and frightened.
“For the past six years I’ve dreamed of driving down Burcham every day to come to work,” Zink, an ELHS graduate and second-year teacher said. “For the past five days, I’ve pulled into the parking lot and broken down, not knowing if I’m safer in the parking lot where it occurred or the school building.”
In her tear-filled comments, Superintendent Dori Leyko apologized for not adequately communicating about Thursday’s incident before school began on Friday.
Leyko also clarified that the student who had the firearm has been identified and reported to East Lansing and Meridian Township police. This semester, the student has been taking ELHS classes online, not attending school in person.
Leyko said she was the one who made the decision to have school proceed as normal on Friday.
She said that right at the start on Friday morning, ELHS staff pulled other students involved in the fight from classes to supervised spaces.
However, two students being guided to the office by an administrator went after another group of students between first and second hour before staff broke up that fight.
Leyko said the students involved in the Thursday night fight should not have been allowed to come to school the next day. Leyko apologized for the “fear and anxiety” that decisions following the incident caused.
The packed meeting brought concerned parents, students and school staff to speak about a pattern of violence that extends back years. Many raised objections to what they deemed a lack of accountability for students.
Speakers expressed a belief that there is not enough accountability for student behavior and that the school board does not give the administration enough power to properly discipline students.
Pointing to the most recent example, several expressed outrage that the school allowed students involved in Thursday’s fight to come back to school the next day.
They were also furious staff, students and parents were not notified of the incident before Friday’s start of school. Rumors were spreading Friday morning, with police at the school, leading to a sense of great uncertainty and fear.
During the meeting, several teachers said they do not feel safe in East Lansing and have noticed a shift in behavior in recent years.
Parents, many of whom have other children that went through East Lansing schools, said the same thing.
Students shared accounts of witnessing violence in the school and said they feel unsafe. Some students even said they will not use the bathroom during school hours because the restrooms are always filled with students vaping, skipping class and intimidating anyone who enters the restrooms.
Board member Debbie Walton said her daughter is afraid to use the restrooms at the school.
“She does not use the bathrooms, at all, during the day unless she goes with friends,” she said. “She comes home and her first trip, at home, is to the bathroom.”
Speakers demanded that ELHS hire a new resource officer for security.
Leyko said that, until recently, the school had two security guards and a resource (police) officer who shared time across ELPS buildings and was based out of the East Lansing Police Department.
But Leyko also explained the funds that employed those staff members had been repurposed to hire personnel to monitor hallways and support students and families. ELi reported the shift in 2020.
The school now has two full-time student advocates, two full-time hall monitors and one full-time communities and school staff person. She said two of these five individuals were previously security guards working in the school.
Leyko went on to say, since the Covid shutdown, the school has dealt with a “higher frequency and intensity” of student misbehavior and the high school has added a counselor and social worker.
She said the school district will reevaluate how it utilizes resources.
Many speakers blamed a lack of discipline for the rise in violence.
Students and teachers said there is no fear of repercussions among students who misbehave and that violence and disrespect has become normal at ELHS.
Representing the teachers’ union, East Lansing Education Association Vice President and high school social studies teacher Mark Pontoni said board decisions regarding discipline have tied the hands of school administration.
“When policies and decisions by this board remove a wide range of disciplinary options from our administrators’ hands,” he said, “creating and maintaining a safe environment is nearly impossible.”
Pontoni said board policy has essentially exempted students from serious consequences and that students are aware that they do not face serious disciplinary threats.
Pontoni said the student who had the gun at the basketball game had been moved to the online program because of past behavioral issues. He asked if the board will now expel the student, which is required with few exceptions for students who bring a firearm on school property.
Pontoni also asked that the school expel students who bring firearms on school property and increase professional presence in the halls with the authority to issue tangible consequences. He said he wants to see the return of random locker checks and a ban on backpacks in the classroom.
Pontoni also requested a reduction of entry points to the building for students, mandatory ID badges for staff and students and real consequences for students who let outsiders in. He also requested a cell phone ban, saying cell phones are regularly used to coordinate illegal and dangerous activities by students.
Pontoni said no one wants the board to return to inequitable suspensions and expulsions, but that current policy needs to be changed. He said some policies meant to promote equity handcuff administration and should be reviewed.
“It appears we are so afraid that our own best judgment will reveal a bias in our disciplinary outcomes that we have ceded the responsibility of maintaining a safe environment to a strategy of negotiation with children,” he said.
Board President Kath Edsall said, as the longest serving member of the board, she felt much of the criticism levied at the meeting was directed at her.
Edsall defended the board’s decision to remove the school resource officer, citing a past incident where a child was tased by an outside police officer for disrespectful behavior.
She also said a former student is now permanently disabled after they were denied an inhaler when a school resource officer was on site.
Challenging speakers’ claims, Edsall expressed a belief that security has not declined following the removal of the resource officers, pointing to the other positions Leyko had described earlier.
Edsall told those gathered she joined the board with hopes to change the climate in the school district, and said punishments often targeted Black students.
She expressed a desire to find a middle ground between expulsion and letting students repeatedly misbehave, and said the board should seek tangible improvements.
Edsall said that enacting policies that prevent students from letting outsiders into the building and banning backpacks are examples of changes that could be made.
“There were a few people tonight that had very specific suggestions,” she said. “I would like those shared with the entire board. [Saying] ‘I don’t feel safe’ isn’t helpful.”