Oxford school board rejects Nessel's 3rd offer for shooting review

Oxford school board officials have again rejected Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's offer to review the deadly Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High. 

The Oxford Community Schools board, which twice previously declined Nessel's proposal, also rejected her offer of a dog trained to detect explosives and firearms along with a handler at the campus in the next academic year.

The district's letter was in response to one Nessel sent Monday in which she asked the district to reconsider its rejections of her offer to review the events leading up to the Nov. 30 mass shooting at Oxford High, which left four students dead and seven others, including a teacher, wounded.

Oxford Community Schools Board President Tom Donnelly Jr.

In a letter to Nessel Tuesday, school board President Thomas Donnelly said the district is "proceeding with the independent investigation announced in May. We intend to share information with our school families and the community outlining the next steps in that investigation. We are confident that, at the conclusion, we will have a clearer picture of what led up to the events on that tragic day as well as a set of responsible and effective solutions to consider so, together, we can move forward."

While Donnelly has characterized that investigation as independent, the school district hired a law firm, Varnum Attorneys at Law in Grand Rapids, to represent the district in investigations, reviews and litigation connected to the shooting. The recommendation to hire Guidepost Solutions — an investigations, regulatory compliance, monitoring and security consulting firm — came from Varnum, school district spokeswoman Andrea Bitely previously told The Detroit News. The law firm has experience working with Guidepost, Donnelly has said. 

Although the district has said Guidepost will perform an investigation and full review of what happened at the high school on the day of the shooting and in the days leading up to the deadly attack, Nessel has raised concerns that Oxford schools could conceal information by refusing to waive attorney-client privilege.

"We have seen this time and time again — outside firms hired by school boards will maintain attorney-client privilege with elected members and therefore the ability to stop short of full transparency," Nessel said in a statement.

Guidepost helped the University of Michigan develop its response to sexual assault complaints and address the culture of sexual misconduct surrounding accused faculty members.

UM has declined Nessel's request to waive attorney-client privilege into how the school handled complaints against accused serial molester and former UM doctor Robert Anderson. Anderson, who died in 2008, is accused of molesting more than 1,000 former students and others. UM reached a $490 million settlement with about 1,050 people, mostly men, that covers allegations that began in the late 1960s and stretched over decades until the controversy publicly emerged two years ago. 

Donnelly also noted the efforts of a district safety committee, which has representatives from police and fire departments, local government and school administrators, and a parent subcommittee focused on safety.

In those groups' most recent meetings, Donnelly said, "we specifically researched and discussed an ammunition detection dog. Following the advice of the committee — and with cabinet agreement — we have already entered into an agreement with a canine detection service agency."

Nessel had offered a dog through Elite Detection K9, a nonprofit that breeds and trains dogs for explosives and firearms detection.

Donnelly said although the district has engaged with the group, "we believe it is best for our district security force to have a dog of our own that allows for longevity and consistency of programming and focuses on additional training for our lead security officer, an Oxford Community Schools employee. He is very familiar with our school, our district, and our needs. He is a retired police lieutenant and has been integral in our safe return to school.

"With his help, we have located a Labrador that will be training in August with our officer. Additionally, he has secured complimentary veterinarian services for the length of the dog’s time in Oxford."

In her letter, Nessel letter reminded the district the costs of the investigation would be borne solely by her office and that the investigation would be conducted "in such a manner as not to interfere with the ongoing criminal proceedings being handled by the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office."

The district announced on May 10 that any independent investigation would wait until criminal and civil litigation was completed. A week later, the board changed course and approved hiring Varnum and Guidepost to investigate and review the attack.

Addressing the denial of Nessel's request, Donnelly said in his Tuesday letter: "The Oxford Community Schools Board of Education recognizes that we have a grave obligation to handle this situation sensitively and appropriately. That is an obligation, not only to our school family, but to our entire community and to a nation that has grappled with these senseless tragedies far too often."

He added: "We ask for trust and support in our efforts to understand the circumstances surrounding what happened, to make our schools safer, and to help our community find healing."

mhicks@detroitnews.com