Moments into the March 1 meeting of the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL) Board of Trustees, library leaders were already starting to grapple with the Jan. 11 incident that was expected to consume most of the meeting.
The explosive January incident involved Library Director Kristin Shelley calling the police on a Black teenager whom she wrongly identified as having been to blame for an earlier incident of alleged vandalism.
At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, during a typically low-stakes procedural vote to approve the minutes from the last meeting, Trustee Ameenah Asante moved to change a line in the minutes attesting that “library policies were followed” during the incident. She said she recalls that no member of the board said that.
What followed was a back-and-forth between Asante and Shelley deliberating what the policy actually was.
Shelley, the person who called the police on the teenager, argued that, according to the exclusion letter she gave to the teen, the correct policy was followed. Shelley had misidentified the young man as another Black teen who had prior conduct offenses and received a temporary ban from library premises. Before her mistake was realized, she believed library policies allowed for “immediate arrest and prosecution.”
“You wanted them prosecuted?” Asante asked.
“No, that was not our intention,” Shelley responded.
“So it was against policy?” Asante asked.
“We thought it was them [the teen who had temporarily been banned], but we would not have prosecuted,” Shelley said.
In the tense exchange, she explained that three members of her staff had identified the Black teen as the one who had been banned. But even if he was, Shelley said she would not have sanctioned prosecution of the young man.
Without a second to change the minutes, Asante’s motion failed. Then, Board President Polly Synk moved that the entire line be stricken from the minutes. That was seconded and approved by the board, with Asante being the only no vote.
Public comment followed with 10 individuals all speaking about the Jan. 11 incident.
The majority of the speakers did not appear to place any blame on Shelley, instead directing their disappointment at current policies and biases that exist among the staff.
Liesel Carlson serves as secretary of the Friends of the East Lansing Public Library group but said she was speaking as a private citizen. She identified all the programming that the library has done, citing examples of anti-racism and multicultural programs.
Nell Kuhnmuench also stressed the existing inclusive programming, adding, “If mistakes were made, we all have to learn. We don’t always do the right thing. We all have our own biases that we need to address.”
Yasmina Bouraoui identified herself as a former member of the East Lansing School Board who has observed the turmoil in the school system and library. (Both Kuhnmuench and Bouraoui have been defending the school board against criticisms in recent meetings.) She called it ironic that school officials are being criticized for not disciplining students while library staff is being criticized for disciplining.
“I can’t imagine what the directive is if you’re elected here and are trying to do the will of the people,” she said. “What does the community want?” (Bouraoui did not take note of the fact that the wrong Black child was “disciplined” by Shelley.)
Michael Lynn of Lansing attended the meeting with his wife, Erica. The two also spoke at Monday’s school board meeting about problems of racism. While not a resident, Lynn said he will be “anywhere young black brothers or sisters are being treated unfairly, I’ll show up.”
Lynn also spoke about his reality as a Black man.
“This young man was probably traumatized,” he said, speaking of the Black teen who was wrongly identified and subjected to the police being called on him. “I’m a Black man before anything else. When I show up in a room, I’m not America, I’m not The Village [his Lansing organization], I’m not Mike, I’m a Black man. It’s what you see. And when I showed up here with my camouflage on, my pants sagging a bit, I see people looking at me. And if the police showed up here today, I’d be scared to death and I would immediately believe that they are here for me, no matter what was going on in this building.
“And anytime I hear about situations with people calling the police, we’ve seen what can happen at the Lake Lansing Meijer,” Lynn said. “Somebody called the police and a young man got shot three times in the back. You can justify that because you found a gun, but it should have never happened. So anytime something like this happens, I always go to the worst possible scenario. Those police show up, the young man is completely confused, he might take off with police chasing after him. He doesn’t want to be like the young man at Meijer.” (On the Meijer shooting, see this Lansing State Journal article.)
“You have to acknowledge that bias,” he said, directing his final comments to Shelley, “where you just immediately thought all young Black men look alike. Whether you think you did or not, that’s what happened. And you called the police and that could have ended very badly for everybody. So I think the board should acknowledge that some bias exists. You don’t want to have that blood on your hands. I don’t wanna see it.”
Other speakers included Randy Riley, the State of Michigan’s Librarian who happens to be an East Lansing resident, and Scott Drapalik, the ELPL Head of Technology Services. Drapalik questioned the workings of the subcommittee (Synk and Asante) that was developed to investigate the Jan. 11 incident. He said no one had come to talk to him, despite his access to camera footage of the incident.
Elaine Hardy, East Lansing’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, gave a report summarizing her own work with library staff in the aftermath of the Jan. 11 incident. She has had two meetings with the group, spending about four hours total with them.
“It was a hard meeting,” she said, “and we had about 22 staff [members]. There were lots of competing narratives about what happened. It’s important to have a shared understanding of what happened.”
She reported speaking with Asante and Trustee Pamela Smith, the two Black members of the library board, to discuss building community for after-school students who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).
“Like a lot of communities,” Hardy said, “we don’t have an intermediary. It’s either do nothing or call the police.”
Hardy also said Shelley was present at both sessions with the staff, saying a “culture of fear” is created if administration is separated out from general staff in discussions. (Shelley and Hardy are known to be close friends, having worked together for years on the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission of Mid-Michigan, which Hardy chairs. Shelley is a commissioner.)
The remaining time was spent discussing next steps and an apology that Shelley may or may not have offered to the mother of the misidentified Black teenager.
Asante said based on multiple conversations she had with the teen’s mother, Shelley had not issued an apology to the mother. Assistant Director Brice Bush offered one once the mother arrived to the library day of the incident. Two weeks after the misidentification, Asante called Shelley to ask about the delay and she said she didn’t know the family. Asante gave Shelley the contact information for the mother.
“No apology came until Feb. 8,” Asante said. “Twenty-eight days later and a family that was in our community went thinking they were ‘less than’ because no apology came from the library.”
Both East Lansing City Attorney Tony Chubb and Trustee Diane Goddeeris rose to defend Shelley.
Chubb said the delay in a written apology to the mother was caused, in part, because his office had to review it before it could be sent.
Goddeeris said Shelley herself had told her she apologized. Asante said that the mother heard no such apology and that only Bush tried to make amends.
“I did apologize,” Shelley said. “I put my hands up. I did apologize and I stand by that.”
In the interest of getting to next steps, Smith highlighted seven library policies she wants to be reviewed: collection management, computing, meeting room, exclusion, patron code of conduct, safe child, theft of library materials.
As part of their subcommittee work, Synk reported that a survey of the community is needed to identify the library programs that are working well and how a spirit of inclusion could be strengthened.
Synk, Asante and Trustee Amy Zaagman appeared to favor an independent evaluation of the library to be completed by an outside consultant, while Goddeeris preferred an internal, community-driven evaluation.
During her finance and director’s report, Shelley said both the evaluation and survey could potentially be funded through the library’s budget.
Shelley also mentioned the time might be appropriate to introduce restorative justice practices to the library staff.
“I have long wanted a restorative justice program here,” she said. “It is the right time to look at a restorative justice program and to train staff to what restorative justice looks like. It’s not just teens, [it’s] the homeless, the mentally ill, the elderly.
“There is no middle ground. We either call the police or don’t call the police, so why not implement something that will give us different options,” she added, seemingly quoting Hardy’s earlier statement.
Other business included the approval or a motion to expand public comment to five minutes from three and an exploration of the coming year’s budget, as prepared by the director.
Shelley indicated the budget was harder to pull together this year because of all the vacancies within the city government.
The public portion of the meeting ended when the board went into a closed session to conduct a performance review of Shelley.
The next regular meeting of the ELPL Board of Trustees will be Wednesday, March 15.