Black Lives Matter protesters call for action at Ann Arbor high school

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — About eighty people gathered for a Black Lives Matter protest Saturday at Pioneer High School, saying it shouldn't take the filing of a state complaint to get school administrators to acknowledge racial disparities in classrooms.

Charmelle Kelsey, mother of Makayla Kelsey, a student at Pioneer High School, filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights alleging a racially hostile environment for Black students at Pioneer. Kelsey told The Detroit News she had to because "things just snowballed out of control."

The incident, which occurred last year, started with an economics class exercise requiring students to play an online game to see who could own the most slaves.

The math teacher allegedly humiliated Black students struggling in math by putting their grades on a Smart Board, which is a violation of the federal education privacy laws.

In the 14-page letter to Pioneer and the AAPS Board of Education, Kelsey demanded the school take action against Pioneer math teacher Michele Macke and establish a complaint system to document incidents.

Macke could not be reached for comment immediately after Saturday's protest.

The letter also accuses 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. CRLI student attorney Liza 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.

The protesters said they 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.

Organizer Charmelle Kelsey, right, and her daughter, Makayla Kelsey, left, both of Ann Arbor, prepare to lead a march around the block.

Charmelle Kelsey said none of their primary demands have been completely met by the school board, which has "refused to commit to these simple requests, abridging the trust of our community and stripping us of the opportunity to hold them accountable."

"Our community has grown weary of the Board’s inaction and are demanding forward progress," Charmelle Kelsey said. "The School Board has hired a law firm to investigate Pioneer’s racially hostile environment (as opposed to an independent civil rights organization). We have requested that should this investigation move forward, the Board commit to a process that is transparent and a final investigation report which is accessible to the public."

The 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.”

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

►Receiving harsher punishments for doing the same things as white classmates

►Being subjected to unequal enforcement of the school dress code by teachers and hall monitors

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

Eli Savit, a civil-rights attorney who is running for Washtenaw County prosecutor as a Democrat, spoke on his experiences at Pioneer 20 years ago saying, not much has changed.

"The systematically racist treatment in our schools is, unfortunately, nothing new," Savit said. "More than 70% of our juvenile detention in Washtenaw County is African American kids and it all starts right here in our schools. The disproportionate rate of suspension influences the school-to-prison pipeline ... and this has been happening for decades."

Ann Arbor School Board candidate Krystle DuPree, of Ann Arbor, addresses the crowd.

Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift issued a statement Friday saying Ann Arbor Public School's stand firm against any and all acts of bias, bigotry and racism.

"The AAPS has received the August 24, 2020, letter from the University of Michigan Civil Rights Litigation Initiative alleging racism at Pioneer High School. In the AAPS, we take this situation and the matters outlined in that letter very seriously. All of us are deeply disturbed by the content of the allegations," ​​Kerr Swift wrote. "We are committed to a full and thorough investigation of those matters as we understand the important value each child brings and are deeply committed to equity and opportunity for each and every student we serve."

In response to the letter, the school board said it has hired the Dykema Gossett law firm to conduct an independent investigation. Early in the investigation, no findings or conclusions have been reached, Kerr Swift said.

"We recognize that reporting requires courage and that it is critically important that students, staff and community members have a safe place to openly share their concerns and experiences," Kerr Swift said.

Jamila James, a parent of two former Pioneer students who is running for school board, said she thought situations her kids experienced were isolated incidents.

"It's very disturbing to me to hear some of their experiences and some of them are so outrageous you think, there's no way that this is happening," said James, 45. "Why does it take a legal action for us to have a conversation about something that's common sense... Common sense ain't all that common."

James said she's disappointed that the school board is concerned about the optics of Ann Arbor keeping the investigation private.

"Parents who aren't outraged because this isn't happening to their child have to understand that they're feeding into this white supremacy thought pattern. We have a responsibility to protect all of our children because what happens to one child, affects our whole community," James said. "Screw optics, we're taking action."

The board encourages the student body, staff, and families to reach out to its AAPS Helpline as a safe place for support at (734) 545-2321 hosted by Dr. Eaddy-Richardson, a counselor and advocate in the community.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_