Several hundred people showed up at the Hannah Community Center tonight for what was billed by East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon as a “listening session” on the topics of safety in the city and the schools.
And while many in the audience tonight appeared to have arrived expecting a town-hall style event where they could vent outrage, Michigan State University education professor Dorinda Carter Andrews used her power as moderator to encourage those in attendance to forestall judgment, listen and focus on solutions.
Carter Andrews organized the discussion around four questions: What can we celebrate about school safety and public safety in East Lansing? What areas of school safety and public safety need our attention? What recommendations do you have for solutions to the challenges identified? And what are the top three priorities you would like to see East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko and Mayor Bacon address immediately?
Although the fourth question was not specifically discussed because of lack of time, Carter Andrews encouraged attendees to write their ideas on cards to submit to the organizers.
And by the time the event was ending, many in the audience expressed a positive take, particularly because Carter Andrews – with Bacon’s encouragement – prioritized the voices of the high school students in the room.
Several speakers also noted that just to have this many people in the room caring about the same central issue – the safety of children in the schools – represented a win for the community.
People named strengths and challenges around the issue of public safety.
Asked to articulate existing strengths of public safety and school safety, audience members named the ability of children to walk safely to school (though some said they wanted better crosswalks, more crossing guards and better lighting), the resiliency of the children, teachers and community after the pandemic shut-downs, and what one woman named as “a skilled and willing police department.”
The general sense was that this is a community that cares about its residents, especially children. But the fear of violence at school was palpable.
One man who identified himself as the parent of a sophomore said, “At this point, I feel like I’m choosing between his safety and his education because I do not feel safe to send him to school at this time.”
A woman who identified herself as a high school secretary said the staff is working so hard to keep the kids safe.
“Don’t ever think we don’t feel like this is a huge undertaking,” she said. “But we have not had active-shooter training. We need training. We need security guards. We have so many points of entry to that school.”
An eleventh-grader concurred, saying teachers need to be properly trained to handle active-shooter situations and professionally trained to look for danger signs as well as taught to diffuse tensions. Another student said it was painful to watch her teachers suffer through these stresses and problems.
Students spoke again and again about the problems in the high school bathrooms, with the girls’ bathroom being described as full of cigarette and marijuana smoke and vaping fog, with girls doing drugs. The boys’ bathroom was described as a place where people who are not supposed to be at the school hide and where fighting starts.
“We need a solution to the bathrooms,” said one high school student, because the bathrooms are “where so many problems start and finish.”
High school students asked that the administration ask them what they need for mental health support rather than making assumptions. One asked for much better communication around emergencies. Another said restorative justice is a good approach but that administrators need training in it.
And several students asked specifically for tighter security and more discipline.
“There needs to be people who watch out during class periods,” said a high school girl, “so people do feel safe going to the bathrooms and not getting jumped.”
Another girl said it seems unfair that she could be suspended for leaving school during an unsafe time when those who bring weapons onto school property are let back onto campus.
“I feel like if I’m going to get in trouble for keeping myself safe,” she said, “they should get in trouble for my having to keep myself safe.”
Some adults and students in the room called for metal detectors and the requirement to use clear backpacks.
One person who identified as a student of color at the high school said a serious problem is the lack of teachers of color. He said he wanted teachers who know what it’s like to face racism, “someone who understands my experiences and understands what it is like to be in this school.”
Several Black men stepped up to offer volunteer help at the high school, to fill in what they named as gaps.
Rufus Jackson identified himself as someone who grew up in East Lansing, raised children here and coaches in the community. He said the problems have been around for years, but the problem is that there used to be security guards and a resource (police) officer in the school, and now there is not “that presence.”
He, like several other Black men in the audience, specifically offered to volunteer to walk the hallways, monitor the bathrooms and give the school a stronger feeling of safety.
One spoke about the problem of adults targeting youth and enlisting them into problems like gun possession and drug use. He expressed concern about expelling kids only to have them be sent home to places with no support and sometimes little food. He said he had talked to an assistant principal at the school and was ready to bring in 20 Black men as volunteers to help in the schools, to patrol the hallways and provide an adult presence to boys who need it.
Wayne Lynn of The Turning Point of Lansing also offered his organization’s services to East Lansing. According to that group’s website, “The Turning Point of Lansing transforms boys to men by providing an Afrocentric group mentoring experience that gives young African American males an opportunity to explore life’s challenges all while developing strategies for success in their lives, school, and communities.”
After the meeting, Bacon huddled with those offering services to follow-up on these connections.
Parents and students called for higher expectations and consequences when it comes to behavior.
A number of parents said they wanted consequences and accountability for misbehavior, especially for fighting and disrespectful actions. Some people suggested more resources be available to help turn around kids who are having major behavioral problems, providing after school help and therapy.
In the words of one woman, “Figure out where the violence is coming from and not just expel them.”
Said one student, “suspending them is not working.” He recommended counseling.
Another student said she wished there was more instruction focused on how to treat other people well, while another said he would like to see security guards and the resource officer back if the students had a say in who they felt they “click” with.
Sitting in the balcony with School Board President Kath Edsall was Karen Hoene, vice chair of East Lansing’s Human Rights Commission and former school board member. Hoene took the mic to say she objected to “the undercurrent that is blaming Schools of Choice kids for these issues,” like the troubles in the bathrooms.
She said she did not want people assuming Schools of Choice students are “bad kids” and said she wanted “to make sure we are not operating under false assumptions.”
Hoene is white, and her comment drew a sharp response from David Ferguson, a Black resident who told ELi afterwards he coaches basketball alongside some other coaches in the room.
Whether they are Schools of Choice kids or East Lansing kids, Ferguson said when he took the mic, kids need supervision and high expectations, like the expectation they won’t smoke in bathrooms and disrespect teachers. He called the situation “absolutely ridiculous” and said the district has “inadequate leadership.”
When it came to the topic of safety in the city, Bacon said he is particularly worried about big events like MSU games. Another man recommended de-escalation training for ordinary citizens, while one attendee said it is important to identify “points of access” to guns and drugs and to limit those.
At the end of the session, one woman said that the event had been very good.
“But what happens on Monday when we get to the school board?” she asked, referring to the special meeting called for Monday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium. “How will this information be transferred? Are they willing to implement anything that was suggested today?”
Bacon said this was “an incredible question that is impossible for me to answer.” He said, though, that he thinks people are ready for change and for action.
Update 10:15 p.m. This article was corrected to note that Karen Hoene is the vice chair (not chair) of the Human Rights Commission and a former school board member.