Almost four hours into the Jan. 30 special meeting of the East Lansing Board of Education – facing a vote of her peers to remove her from her presidency – Board President Kath Edsall resigned her officership rather than face the vote.
Edsall will remain on the board, and the board will elect a new president at its next meeting.
The meeting was convened chiefly so that East Lansing Public Schools’ administrators could reveal the developing plan to increase school safety. At the event, held in the high school auditorium, the administration also announced a system for receiving feedback on the plan’s details, saying they especially wanted to hear from students and teachers.
Public comment consumed over two hours at the meeting, which drew hundreds of concerned parents, students and staff members who anxiously awaited answers following a tumultuous couple of weeks that saw a gun brought onto campus, multiple fights, two shelter-in-place orders and a canceled day of school dedicated to regrouping.
Edsall’s resignation came near the end of the meeting.
Just after the superintendent and assistant superintendent finished their presentation on the emerging safety plan, Edsall read a statement apologizing for her actions at last week’s meeting. That was the meeting where she had responded to fearful students and parents by telling them that saying “‘I don’t feel safe’ isn’t helpful.” Her attitude at that meeting had led to calls by students and parents for her resignation.
“A week ago, parents, students, teachers came before us because you were scared, anxious, angry and hurting,” she said in her statement last night. “My comments only added to your pain. I am deeply sorry for my comments.”
During the public comment period that followed her apology, Edsall received mixed reactions. Some speakers called for her to resign while others showed support for her, who of all the current board members has put in the most years of service. (She was elected president at the first meeting of the year, and this was only the third meeting.)
When the public comment period finally ended over three hours into the meeting, Edsall called for a five-minute break. Many in the audience left during the break.
As soon as the meeting resumed, Trustee Monica Fink made a motion stating she wanted to see the board remove Edsall from the position of president.
Fink explained her motion by reading into the record various board policies that state board members must act collaboratively and in the best interests of students, faculty and staff. She took Edsall to task not only for her comments last week but for years of what Fink described as Edsall’s disregard for parents’ and teachers’ concerns about violence.
Fink named meeting after meeting where concerns about violence had been raised. Fink also took Edsall to task for what she described as transparency failures and for the way Edsall and others have treated Fink for having a minority viewpoint.
“The bullying that I have experienced on this board for having a different opinion is something that should be addressed,” Fink said.
Trustee Amanda Cormier seconded Fink’s motion. But before the matter could go to a vote, Edsall hastily resigned, reading from a second prepared statement.
Edsall said she was resigning effective the end of the meeting. She said she had become a “distraction” from the work the board needs to do and said she didn’t want the vote to go forward because she didn’t want to put any trustee who was a friend in the position of having to vote on the motion.
Edsall then pressed Fink to either withdraw her motion or table the motion.
“There doesn’t seem like there is any point to [the vote] at this point,” Edsall said.
Fink withdrew her motion. Several board members then went on to read prepared statements raising concerns.
Trustee Elizabeth Lyons (the board secretary) reiterated her call from earlier in the meeting to hire a professional communications expert for the district.
Cormier said she was very concerned that teachers don’t seem to feel safe speaking out.
Trustee Terah Chambers (the board vice president) said she was “personally devastated” at what she called her failures in the past week and said she would work to build back the community’s trust.
Trustee Tali Faris-Hylen, who ran with Edsall and Chambers, said she hoped Edsall would continue to stand with the board. She said she was glad things at the high school were so much better today following a new approach, but said she had not been prepared when she ran for office “for all of the vitriol and fallacies” that followed last week’s meeting.
Trustee Debbie Walton (the board treasurer) said she hadn’t prepared a statement because she had come planning just to focus on the safety presentation. She said there was a lot of work to do but she was proud to be part of the board.
At that point, Fink moved to also remove Chambers from her position as vice president, saying her reasons were the same as in her motion to remove Edsall.
Cormier leaned into the microphone looking ready to second this motion as she had Fink’s earlier motion, but she did not speak. The motion then failed for lack of a second.
To be clear, Edsall did not resign her seat, just the presidency.
Walton then suggested the board do the new election at last night’s meeting, but Edsall forestalled that, saying the election would happen at the next meeting.
Putting off the vote will allow board members to confer with each other individually in advance of that vote.
Chambers will be in charge as vice president at the start of that meeting and, at that time, the board will elect a new president from among the seven members.
Details emerged about recent events that involved safety concerns.
At the start of the meeting, ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko and Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham went over the timeline of events that raised safety concerns that led to this meeting. Some speakers at public comment objected to what was left out of this timeline, but it did provide information to which not everyone has been privy.
On Dec. 5, numerous students engaged in a fight, which led to East Lansing Police being called. Multiple students were suspended.
Then, on Jan. 4, two students opened an exterior door and let three people into the building, two of whom were not ELPS students. No further incident occurred as a result, but students were suspended for letting others in.
On Jan. 19, a large fight involving eight to 10 students broke out following a basketball game. A teacher who helped break up the fight saw one student drop a gun, before quickly recovering it and leaving the scene.
The next day, Jan. 20, many of the students involved in the fight returned to school but were taken by staff to supervised spaces early in the day. However, a group of students being guided by administrators went after another group of students.
On Jan. 24, some students reported hearing that a gun was on campus. Administration initiated a shelter-in-place order (wrongly termed a “lockdown” in some school communications) and conducted an investigation. It was eventually found that students had misinterpreted a conversation they heard in the hallway.
On Jan. 26, ELPD was called to help remove a student from campus who was suspended for a nonviolent offense. Administration initiated a shelter-in-place order to eliminate hallway traffic while the student was removed. After the shelter-in-place was lifted, two students assaulted another student in the school bathroom.
Long-term suspension or expulsion or permanent expulsion is under consideration for students involved in these altercations. The board must approve suspensions that go beyond 10 days.
On Jan. 27, the high school was closed to finish investigations, make plans for improved safety and hold meetings with the families of students involved in past incidents.
Specific plans for improved safety are being implemented and evaluated.
Leyko and Mitcham presented the outline of a proposal that was developed through a collaboration of six district administrators, three building administrators, five teachers and one non-teaching staff member. The proposal includes 24 recommendations. Some will be implemented immediately, others in the short-term, still others in the long-term and some will need to receive more input or evaluation before a decision is made.
Teachers at the high school informed students of the policies to be implemented immediately when they came into class yesterday morning, Jan. 30. These changes include students entering only through one door during school hours, teachers no longer issuing hall passes in the first and last 10 minutes of class, reducing the likelihood students will be in the halls during Excel period and more mental health resources for students and staff.
Additionally, ELHS will immediately bolster the security at sporting events after school as well as in the hallways and bathrooms during school hours. On a volunteer basis, teachers may give up their prep periods to patrol the halls and bathrooms. Leyko said teachers will be compensated for their time, but the amount was not disclosed.
The changes that are aimed to be implemented in the short-term should be fully in place within 30 days. These changes include a major overhaul for how the district communicates. The administration is evaluating a mobile safety alert system to send mass text messages, crafting an emergency message template, assigning an individual in the district to be on call to receive information and send messages and looking at training on crisis management and communication.
Outside of communication changes, within the next 30 days administration is looking to collaborate with ELPD to schedule an active-shooter training for staff, add alarms to exterior doors, add lockdown buttons and add security personnel to monitor hallways, bathrooms and exterior doors. Administration will also reinstate an in-school suspension program that aims to levy consequences while rehabilitating and supporting students.
In the long-term, the administration would like to meet with officials from the city, public library and police department to collaborate around student safety. They have also requested an assessment to see if any of the 86 exterior doors to the high school can be put out of use, which would reduce access points. There are also plans to meet with mentoring groups and student support agencies to assist students involved in conflicts. All staff will also be provided with de-escalation training.
Administration is seeking feedback from the public on other possible measures. These changes could include a change in policies surrounding cell phones and backpacks in classrooms, requiring students and staff to wear IDs at all times, reinstatement of a school resource (police) officer, adding metal detectors and a bond proposal for safety enhancements.
A survey sharing the full list of considerations that need more feedback is available here. Feedback is being accepted until noon on Monday, Feb. 6.
Students, parents, teachers and other community members called for school staff to be able to issue consequences and handle student behavioral problems,
As has been the case in the past, this meeting saw calls for the board to remove barriers that prevent teachers and administrators from issuing punishments for students who misbehave.
During public comment, a group of seven former Board of Education members shared a letter, which was co-signed by three other former members. They said existing policies can work if staff is properly empowered.
“When student safety is at risk and immediate reaction is required, we need to count on our administrators to act without interference,” former board member Nichole Martin read from the letter.
In a discussion with board members, Edsall said she was not sure what policies are handcuffing the school staff, but she welcomes a meeting with administration to address concerns. Chambers suggested that the board’s policy committee meeting be moved to a sooner date. (These meetings are typically held during the work day with little notice to the public.)
One mother of a student involved in the violence spoke out.
Much of the blame for the violence is being assigned to two groups of students that have been fighting. The mother of one of those students delivered a powerful message, apologizing for fear her son may have caused and asking for solutions.
The mother clarified her son was not an instigator of the violence, but she had moved him to online classes due to an altercation he was involved in. She said last school year she asked for the students who were fighting to be brought together to find a resolution, but administration was holding meetings with individual students.
“We have to learn, and get them all together and teach them how to communicate, teach them how to address these issues,” she said. “These two groups, at one point they were teammates. I watched these kids play Little League together.”
Now, her son is not in the school building but has succeeded academically in online classes. However, she said, he does not have the social or emotional support needed to thrive.
Speakers highlighted the Ineffectiveness of policies to promote equity and restorative justice, saying the district must do better.
Several speakers highlighted the lack of diversity among ELPS staff.
“Having less minority teachers than I have fingers on my hand is not acceptable,” one student said.
ELHS alumni and parent Sam Hosey told the board he finds it very troubling that, when awards are given out, white athletes are getting academic achievement awards and Black athletes are limited to awards for sports performance. He also tied this back in part to the lack of Black teachers.
“You guys are dropping the ball on the diversity front,” Hosey said, noting that when he was a Black child at Pinecrest Elementary, he had three Black teachers and at Hannah Middle School he had three Black and one Hispanic teacher. “It’s [become] very monolithic here,” he said. “We are messing up.”
Another speaker spoke to ELPS’ “shameful” racial disparity in standardized test scores as reported by the Michigan Department of Education. He said the board has failed to focus on shrinking the gap.
Pastor Tracy Edmond of Walk in Truth Ministries, who is Black, offered his services to the school district and said he believes he and his team can provide mentorship to troubled students that will stop the violence. As he had on Friday at the listening session, he said he has a team of 20 volunteers ready to patrol the hallways if called upon.
Edmond shared his story of selling drugs at a young age in East Lansing and eventually ending up in prison. He said he understands many of the pressures that young people are facing and he would like to offer them the mentorship he needed when he was in a similar situation.
“I’m just trying to muster everything up to turn young people around,” he said.
Many speakers supported the district’s interest in restorative justice but they said the concept is not being deployed correctly. They said staff lack training in restorative justice.
Despite recent events, many speakers said they support ELHS.
Throughout the meeting, students and parents praised ELHS teachers, and teachers voiced confidence that the district would find a solution to the violence.
“East Lansing is still a great school district,” East Lansing Education Association (ELEA) President Norm Scott said. “Despite the negative sentiments of many social media posts, the high school is not out of control.”
Scott acknowledged that mistakes were made when handling some of the recent incidents but said that the community’s response is helping to move things in the right direction.
“The ELEA has long been calling for more trust and better tools for our administrators and it feels like we’re making progress now in that direction,” he said.
Scott said East Lansing’s science olympiad team won the Haslett Invitational this weekend. He also pointed to the improving wrestling team, the school’s thriving fine arts and positive news students had received from college admissions offices lately.
“We’ll have Ivy-leaguers again this year, we’ll have military academy attendees,” he said. “Great kids are doing great things, just as they have for a very long time in our buildings.”
Alice Dreger contributed reporting.