In 2020, after nationwide protests following the murder of of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS) leaders chose to end working with the East Lansing Police Department for a school resource officer to be present in the high school. At the Monday, April 24, meeting, the ELPS school board affirmed that decision following public comment from several parents and community members – both pro and con.
The 140-minute meeting, however, included none of the obvious tensions and anger seen during recent school board gatherings.
Two ELHS theater students recognized for award nomination; Graduation Alliance students have opportunity for support.
Early in the meeting, Trustee Tali Faris-Hylen offered recognition of Edith Penell and Jack McGuire, two students who starred in East Lansing High School’s production of “Chicago” who have been nominated for the 2023 Sutton Foster Award. Nominees from around the state will gather May 20-21 for theater workshops taught by industry leaders. Penell and McGuire will give a performance with the other nominees and two actors will be chosen from that showcase to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards.
During her report, Superintendent Dori Leyko introduced new aspects of Graduation Alliance, a program that allows students who have experienced academic or behavioral issues to complete their degree online. Each Wednesday evening, Graduation Alliance students are invited to attend a dinner and receive program support. Leyko reported three students took advantage of the opportunity during its first week and 11 during the second. School staff are on hand during these functions to offer help with coursework or other skill-building experiences.
Leyko also shared that Kindergarten Round-Up will be held May 9 at each of the five elementary schools, allowing incoming students and their families to tour the school and meet with teachers and school administration.
Public comment brought some concerns about security cameras and the lack of diversity among high school staff.
Jen Chenault spoke of an incident in the student parking lot that left her son trapped in his car with other students not permitting him to leave. She learned there were no cameras in that part of the parking lot.
“They have fiber optics and cable run now,” she said. “But they don’t have all of the cameras hooked up yet in the school parking lot. I believe that cameras should have been in the school parking lot, the student parking lot for 15 years, more.”
Alumna Ainslie Branson spoke of conditions inside the building.
“I have to stress the importance of seeing someone that looks like you when you are in school,” she said. “It is important to be able to connect with a person that understands who you are and empathizes with your strengths but recognizes and understands your struggle.
“When I went to East Lansing High School, there were two African American teachers, Mr. Turner and Mrs. McQueen. Today there are none. With just a freckle of African American students in my graduating class of East Lansing High School, my fellow classmates would joke that our class was the last white class,” she said. “I didn’t realize how hurtful this statement was 15 years ago, but today I am reminded of the constant battle during my experience at East Lansing High School. There was a prevailing conflict of who I was and who they were. They were young white students that could accomplish and be anything. And I was a Black student that had to try 20 times harder to be noticed for the positive attributes I provided to the school.”
She reminded the board and Superintendent Leyko of their previously-stated commitments to increasing diversity in the halls of high school.
The board spent the majority of the meeting discussing pros and cons of resource officers.
The bulk of the meeting was spent discussing school resource officers and whether they should return to the schools, a topic proposed by Trustees Amanda Cornier and Monica Fink.
“It was really bothering me, after everything that happened in January,” Cormier said. “And that we had parents coming to speak at pretty much every meeting, asking us to talk about it or to learn more why we don’t have one [school resource officer]. I wanted us to be able to have an open discussion of [asking] would we benefit from it? Is there a compromise of some kind for parents who have concerns about the gun violence aspect of it?”
Public comment included remarks from parents both in-favor of school resource officers and those against their return to the school.
Jared Roberts spoke as a father of East Lansing students and noted his recent contact with board members.
“As you all know,” he said, “my family is in favor of returning the resource officers to the school. Not just the hour or two per day or the occasional resource officers (SRO) we had at the time, but full time, dedicated resource officers. It’s not necessarily a discipline issue. The driving issue from our perspective is to respond immediately to violent events and gun violence.”
Roberts pointed out that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had recently signed a $25 million appropriation that provides districts with 50% of their funding for SROs. Several neighboring communities have received funds, including Haslett, Mason, Leslie and Williamston.
“[SROs are] almost to the point where it’s become the standard of care,” Roberts said. “It’s like checking blood pressure before you do certain surgical procedures. It would be unfortunate for us to be the outlier, particularly, since times have changed since the time the decision to remove the resource officers was implemented.”
Del Chenault agreed, adding that police officers are getting mistreated in the argument against SROs.
“From a school resource officer perspective, ” he said, “they’re effective in terms of giving kids the perception of safety as well as actual safety, judging by the number of districts including or in our surrounding areas that have adopted these policies. I think it’s incredibly insulting to police officers to assume that they will inappropriately apply force, inappropriately apply the law or that they’re all here to, in some way, act in a very biased manner.
“When you look at the training of a police officer, and I encourage all of you to do the research, when you look at Michigan Commission of Law Enforcement Standards, a police officer receives almost 600 hours of training,” Chenault said. “Yet, this board and administration’s response to school safety following the uproar in January and February was to hire a handful of security guards. Do you know how much training a security guard receives? About 40 [hours], much of that is on first aid but very little training in the law, very little training in de-escalation techniques, very little training in mental health issues.”
But just as many speakers spoke against the measure.
Nell Kuhnmuench spoke as a parent of graduates from the district and a former school board member.
“A great deal of research shows that having police in schools does not make schools safer,” she said. “And importantly, there is research that shows that having police in schools can lead to police criminalizing behaviors that are, quite simply, non-criminal adolescent behaviors. See, for instance, the Hechinger Report – and I can get you these sites if you want them – which provides the following insight, ‘instead of protecting students, these police rely on criminal procedures to respond to normal youthful behavior that could be addressed by school faculty through safe and effective disciplinary policies’ unquote.
“Furthermore, a parent group, Dignity in Schools, shared the following Insight: ‘We are once again at a crossroads. Policymakers can continue to pour billions of dollars into school policing and invasive security measures and look the other way as Black, Latinx, indigenous, LGBTQ, gender non-conforming students and students with disabilities are criminalized, traumatized and brutalized by school police as mass shootings continue or they can listen to their constituents and direct the necessary resources for equitably funding school communities to meet the social emotional and mental health needs of all students while preserving their rights and dignity.’”
“As a parent, I do not support it,” Brad Lutz said. “I do not think it will be equitable. I think we’ll create a pipeline. East Lansing is unique amongst all schools in this area and that is why we chose it. We looked at the makeup of the school and the diversity and we need to consider all students when making this decision and not just the students of vocal parents in this district.
“I came from the South,” he said. “Racism is very open down there and a lot of the language I heard here in January concerned me because it was coded language that sounded very similar to what I heard in the South. And the student resource issue, I fully understand the violence going on across this country with firearms and the danger they pose. But this topic didn’t come up because of that. It came up because of some issues we had in the school. And I heard things like gangs, coded language there, and then asking for school resource officers and so I do not support that.”
Kayla and Antonio Gomez both stood up to speak out against a returning resource officer being assigned to the school.
“We are obviously a family of color,” Kayla Gomez said. “I have two children in the school and we’ve heard this throughout the night, but SROs are not the answer in our schools. They would make my kids feel uncomfortable every day and, at that point, I think it would come to a point where we would consider taking our kids out of school in the East Lansing district. We moved here for the schools, so if this is a route we go down, I would seriously – it would break my heart — but I would consider removing them.”
Board members unanimously opposed returning resource officers to ELHS.
After the public weighed in, members of the board shared their thoughts. All of those present (Trustee Liz Lyons was absent) were opposed to returning a resource officer to the district.
Trustee Chris Martin recognized the board had not heard from teachers during their discussions. Faris-Hylen spoke as a former educator, explaining some children feel unsafe around uniformed officers.
President Terah Chambers gave three reasons for opposing SROs.
“I don’t believe that we have to have an active armed police presence in our schools,” she said. “There are populations of students, as people have at this table and in our community have talked about, particularly those who come from minoritized populations, who do not feel supported by police, feel targeted by police and I want to respect that perspective. Second, I think we can provide a more robust and comprehensive response by thinking beyond school resource officers. And we’ve been doing this. We have invested in more mental health resources over the last few years, especially since we’ve moved away from using an SRO. We focused on hiring more adults who can establish more meaningful relationships with kids, including some of those former security officers who have been hired in-house as student advocates who can do much more than just be quote-unquote security and be more comprehensive in their approach with our students.
“That’s what I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do with the security officers who are hired this year, like the previous security officers who became ELPS employees,” Chambers said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do the same thing with them and change the scope of their employment contracts to focus on something more than just security, to be more in support of our ELPS students. And then the third reason is cost. I don’t have the cost figure in front of me, but the district was responsible in the past for paying a significant portion of the salary of the SRO. And we previously had one, which is appropriate given the amount of training and experience that that person had, but it’s expensive. And every year I would think about all of the things that we could do to support student safety that might be more appropriate in a school setting.”
Superintendent Leyko chose not to speak on the matter.
East Lansing Police Captain Chad Pride attended the meeting but did not speak at the meeting.
Setting aside the SRO issue, the board approved policy changes and reviewed budgets for the 2022-2023 year.
The policy edits included a revision to the student discipline policy, giving the superintendent less discretion in suspending students violating the code of conduct. The former policy gave the superintendent latitude to give a sentence of less than 10 days but can now only hand-out punishments of six to 10 days. This eliminates the option of one to five days suspension.
Leyko also shared the number of openings for incoming Schools of Choice students.
Sixteen openings exist for kindergarten and young fives, 41 for first through fifth grade, 10 for sixth grade and five for ninth grade.
The East Lansing School Board’s next meeting will be Monday, May 8, in the board office at the high school.