Presenting to the school board on the progress of the District Safety Plan Monday night, East Lansing Public School’s administrators suggested the scene at the high school is much calmer because of “tweaks” made in the approach to discipline.
But a group of Black parents and mentors speaking during public comment on Feb. 27 had a different story to tell. They suggest the district is maintaining a racially-biased, punitive approach to Black students.
And, these Black adults told those gathered in the high school’s auditorium Monday night, the reason fighting has abated between two groups of boys in the high school is not because of new district policies and practices.
It’s primarily because they personally stepped in to provide intensive attention to those boys – the kind of sensitive attention needed to solve the problems and help those involved.
Everyone seems to agree fights between two student groups were creating a sense of fear, and everyone seems to agree things are calmer.
Tensions in the district boiled over at the Jan. 24 meeting of the school board. There, ELHS math teacher Madelyn Zink told the story of discovering a student had brought a gun to school property. This happened in the context of another fight between the two groups that had been at odds for some time.
At the Jan. 24 meeting, teachers and students said suspended students were entering the school without permission, bullying and intimidation was making students afraid to use the bathrooms, and fights were constantly breaking out.
The following week saw two shelters-in-place orders at the school. By the time of the Jan. 30 meeting, the school board was facing an even larger and more upset crowd than the week before.
In the weeks since all the blow-up at the Jan. 24 meeting, the district’s administration, led by Superintendent Dori Leyko and Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham, hastened to produce a new ELPS Safety Plan.
On Monday, Leyko and Mithcam presented an update on that plan along with results of a community survey. (See the slides here.) Leyko said the survey would be “used to inform our next steps,” but that they want more information “from some of our subgroups.” Only about a quarter of ELHS students and a third of ELHS teachers took the survey.
Leyko and Mitcham indicated the district will be moving in the direction of tighter security. They are planning to hire three in-building, unarmed security personnel and install more security cameras while contracting with DK Security to staff certain athletic events. Under consideration are requirements for students and staff to carry IDs at all times and restrictions on cell phones and backpacks.
The administration is also working with Secure Education Consultants on additional measures that include better communication systems and de-escalation training for staff. They are also considering reinstating a School Resource Officer, an East Lansing Police officer assigned to the building. (ELi recently reported the City of East Lansing is budgeting for that in anticipation of the move.)
In his portion of the presentation Monday, Mitcham said certain measures had already been taken, including communication of new rules, restriction of entry to a single door, increased supervision and monitoring of the bathrooms, limiting of hall passes and making available the District Wellness Leader, Lindsay Young. He described the high school as now quieter and more orderly, saying “what a big difference a few tweaks can make.”
But Black parents and mentors came forward to paint a different picture.
Shari Brooks and Brandy Johnson are two mothers in the district with sons in the high school. They came forward together Monday night along with others to announce they are now functioning as the East Lansing Parent Advocacy Team, a self-organized group.
Brooks and Johnson have been speaking regularly at public comment about what they describe as mistreatment of their sons, both of whom have been subject to suspension. Both parents have struggled trying to get clarity on the district’s disciplinary processes, including opportunities for appeals.
They describe the system as capricious and cruel, with Johnson saying her son, who has a disability, and other young men have been “targeted and suspended consistently and unfairly with no rhyme or reason.”
Brooks called the district’s approach to suspensions biased in “who they are targeting” and decried the district administration’s approach as “underhanded.” And, Brooks told the district’s leaders, the reason the two groups of boys had stopped fighting was because people like her had worked with the boys on conflict resolution.
“So, when you say you put these changes in place that have reduced incidents in the building,” Brooks said, the reality is that “our children took accountability for themselves.”
Brooks has urged the board to collaborate with parents, with little success.
“We are still just asking you to meet our children at their humanity,” Brooks told district leaders at the meeting. “You bring in security officers before you bring in parents.”
She noted she has also long been asking for data on equity, saying she knows it is going to be ugly but progress has to start somewhere.
“It’s OK to get it wrong if you work to get It right,” she said.
Brooks specifically thanked board members Kath Edsall, Monica Fink and Amanda Comier for being responsive to her group’s calls, urging the rest of the board to collaborate with them.
Brooks also announced her group would be meeting at the East Lansing Public Library this today (March 1) from 6-8 p.m., and she invited others to join them. (The Library Board of Trustees is meeting today as well, starting at 4:45 p.m., to follow-up on an incident in which the library director called the police on a Black boy who she wrongly identified as responsible for an earlier incident of alleged vandalism.)
When she took the mic, Johnson also spoke of the district’s move to bring in security personnel, saying this amounted to “more people to intimidate and scare our children.”
Several white parents came forward to say they want more security measures and a code of conduct with clear punishments spelled out for transgressions.
Jared Roberts, father of a seventh grader in the district, insisted, “This has nothing to do with race. It has to do with whether children will have a safe place to learn.”
But speaking after Roberts, Michael Lynn of Lansing said to say this isn’t about race “is ridiculous.” He called the scene at ELHS “flooded in bias – racial and economic.”
Lynn is a well-known civil rights leader in the Greater Lansing Area. Along with his wife, Erica Lynn, he leads the organization The Village Lansing, which provides holistic, supportive care to Black youth. (The name comes from the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.”)
Michael Lynn questioned Mitcham’s read that “little tweaks” is what calmed things down among the two factions that had been in tension. He said the district had in fact been “stoking the flames” of the problem.
He laid out a timeline showing the situation really calmed down when he and other Village members got involved, actively engaging the boys into conflict mediation work.
Describing intensive support work for the boys who had been in conflict, Lynn said it is important to understand “what makes one feel safe may make another feel endangered.”
Echoing what others have said for years about the district’s problems, instituting heavy security and disciplinary procedures, Lynn suggested, will only increase racial divides and inequities.
Instead, Lynn said, it was critically important the administration allow people like him to help these kids, not just suspend them. Some, he explained, have deeply disrupted home lives with no access to the technology they need to complete school work at home.
The Village Lansing has tutors – including students from Michigan State University – and space to help, “if you include us in the process.”
Earlier in the meeting, Mitcham seemed to acknowledge this offer, saying the long-term plan includes meeting with mentoring groups to help the social development of students involved in conflict. He spoke of “wonderful folks” who had come to the high school to “help in specific ways,” calling it “awesome.”
In her remarks, Leyko acknowledged there is still more to do on these issues. She noted the district has made “not much progress” on having an in-school suspension program that would allow students to be suspended from regular activities while still coming to school to stay on track academically and get the kind of scholastic and material support only available in school.
But Lynn pressed for more collaboration and more understanding that the district’s students’ problems aren’t solved when they are simply banned from the high school’s campus.
“When you suspend them from school, they are still our problem as a community,” he said.
He explained the importance of using harm-reduction methods and attending to equity. He noted if the district takes actions like requiring clear backpacks, “Some kids can’t go buy a new backpack” because of lack of money. He told the board to consider issues of equity.
Taking the mic, Erica Lynn also urged collaboration with the community, saying she was deeply concerned about “how obsessed society is with punishment in general” and how punishment in the absence of other measures can simply perpetuate harm.
Noting the racial bias in the high school’s approaches to “gatekeeping our kids,” she warned not to fall into the trap of having a perception of safety without real safety that stops cycles of harm and inequity.
Erica Lynn said The Village Lansing uses an approach that involves “mutual accountability” – engaging parents, schools and the community to come together in systems of care outside of school as well as in.
“If you always take care of the most marginalized,” she told the board, “then we will all be OK.”
“We can have accountability and care and support,” she said, adding it doesn’t have to be either/or.
Asked by ELi for comment the day after the meeting, Superintendent Leyko provided this by email:
“I would attribute the change in building climate to both the procedural adjustments made by the high school staff, administrators and students and also to the work the Lynns have done with the students with whom they’ve met. I believe that both of these actions have contributed to a healthier building climate, and we greatly appreciate their commitment to helping our students grow as young people.”
The school board is scheduled to meet next on Monday, March 13. That meeting will include newly-appointed member Chris Martin, who was selected to fill the board vacancy in a 4-2 vote. Read more on that here.