Black student alleges racially hostile environment at Ann Arbor high school

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

An exercise in a high school economics class requiring students to play an online game to see who could own the most slaves.

A teacher who humiliates Black students struggling in math by putting their grades on a Smart Board in violation of the federal education privacy laws.

These allegations and several others were made Monday by a Black high school student who filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights alleging she and other Black students face a racially hostile environment at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor.

The 16-year-old student is represented by the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, a clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, which interviewed current and former Pioneer Black students and students of color before filing the complaint, CRLI student attorney Liza Davis.

The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative sent Ann Arbor Public School officials a 14-page letter on Monday describing what Pioneer junior Makayla Kelsey and other students have experienced at Pioneer and how it has interfered with their education, Davis said.

The letter alleges that Pioneer math teacher Michele Macke insults Black students and their parents in front of the class, humiliates Black students who are struggling in math by putting their grades on the Smart Board in violation of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act and is hostile to students who are members of the Black Student Union as well as its faculty advisers.

The letter also accuses the teacher Macke of using coded language against Black students such as calling them “criminals” and “delinquents” and refused to take her class to the Black History Month assembly because it was a “waste of time” and complained that it didn’t focus enough on how white people made contributions to Black people.

In one instance in December, Makayla Kelsey alleges she tried to grab a study guide in a classroom and the teacher grabbed her by the arm to stop her. Davis said police investigated the incident and the teacher was placed on administrative leave for a few weeks. The district created a safety plan for the student, Davis said, but the teacher remains on staff.

“High school is hard enough without being bullied by teachers,” the junior said. "All students, not just white students, deserve a welcoming and supportive environment.” 

Davis said she sent a copy of the complaint and a letter of demands to the Ann Arbor School District on Monday and is asking them to listen to the students who have come forward.

“This summer, an ever-increasing array of Americans are realizing what Black Americans have always known: this country has spent generations institutionalizing racism in every facet of American life, including education,” Davis said.  “We call on Pioneer to listen to the brave students who have come forward to tell their stories, and to rectify the vile racism pervading its environment. Black Lives Matter.”

On Monday, Ann Arbor schools spokesman Andrew Cluley said the district does not comment on personnel matters or pending litigation.

Davis said the math teacher’s treatment of Black students over the years prompted the Black Student Union to petition the school in February to remove her from Pioneer.

The CRLI letter alleges that “racism at Pioneer is institutional and not limited to a few individuals. Davis said it was distressing to hear how many Black students and students of color felt that they were treated as second class citizens.”

Examples Black students gave of unequal treatment or of a racially hostile environment include:

►An exercise in an economics class requiring students to play an online game to see who could own the most slaves, which distressed the Black students in the class.

►The harsher punishment of Black students for doing the same thing as a white classmate and unequal enforcement of the dress code by teachers and hall monitors against young Black women.

►Discriminatory treatment of the Black Student Union and other predominantly Black organizations.

The CRLI and Kelsey and her family say they are asking the district to terminate the teacher and to hire a civil rights organization to conduct an independent investigation of the racial climate at Pioneer, including whether the curriculum is “culturally responsive” to Black students and whether the faculty and staff reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the school.

They also want the district to create a race discrimination complaint system and encourage students to use it and start the process to terminate the Macke’s employment.