An investigation into racial hostility is taking place at Pioneer High College. Here’s what you need to know

On Feb. 22, six Ann Arbor City Council members and Mayor Christopher Taylor sent a letter to Ann Arbor Public Schools, advocating for a return to in-person classes. Though the letter could be perceived as unconventional, as school decisions beyond the allocation of funding are usually considered outside the council’s jurisdiction, the council members and mayor wrote that they were simply responding to their constituents’ needs. Specifically, the letter cited “BIPOC communities” suffering an “unjust disparity in loss” during the pandemic.

When local Black Lives Matter activist and founder of Survivors Speak Trische’ Duckworth read the letter, she questioned that claim. Where were councilmembers, she wondered, when dozens of community members came out to demonstrate against alleged racism at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School (AAPS) — when Black parents told them they needed their support?

“At a time where they were needed most in the district, when … there was so much racial unrest within the district against students, they would not step in,” Duckworth told The Michigan Daily in February.

Months before the letter was sent, these tensions were already hitting a breaking point. The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI) — a Michigan Law clinic that gives law students the opportunity to work on a variety of civil rights cases, ranging from workers’ rights to racial discrimination — sent a letter in Aug. 2020 on behalf of an Ann Arbor Pioneer High School student, Makayla Kelsey, and her mother, Charmelle Kelsey, to AAPS. The letter, based on interviews with Makayla Kelsey and several other students of color at Pioneer High School, alleges a pattern of institutional racism at Pioneer High School, from individual instructors’ behavior to administrators’ decisions to look the other way when students have come forward with experiences of mistreatment. This pattern far exceeds the Kelseys’ case, the letter claims.

“As much as many people would like to believe that Ann Arbor is somehow different from the rest of the country, institutional racism is alive and well at Pioneer High School,” the letter reads. “Unless AAPS leaders truly embrace anti-racist education, the hostile environment that exists for many Black students at Pioneer will not change.”

The letter includes a list of three demands, described as “first steps toward dismantling institutional racism at Pioneer.” The demands include urging AAPS to retain an external civil rights organization to investigate the climate at Pioneer, the creation of a reporting mechanism for incidents of bias and the termination of math instructor Michele Macke, against whom over a dozen allegations in the letter are specifically made.

In the months that have followed, the district has begun to forge a response to the letter. 

Two months after receiving it, AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift released a statement on Oct. 23, 2020, addressing the allegations and committing to a thorough investigation of the claims in the letter. AAPS Board President Bryan Johnson followed suit on Nov. 11 with an official statement from the board, echoing Swift’s. AAPS Director of Communications Andrew Cluley referred The Daily to these statements in response to a request for comment.

“In the AAPS, we take this situation and the matters outlined in that letter very seriously,” Swift’s statement reads. “All of us are deeply disturbed by the content of the allegations. 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.”

As both statements mention, AAPS has hired the Dykema Gossett Law Firm to investigate “the matters set forth in the letter” from CRLI. The Dykema firm is not an independent civil rights organization, as CRLI demanded, but rather a legal firm that primarily works in tax, healthcare and corporate law. The lead investigators — Bonnie Mayfield and Jill Wheaton — are trained attorneys with backgrounds primarily in labor and business law, although Mayfield clerked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. They declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

AAPS has also publicized the number for a helpline, which community members can call in order to share their own experiences of bias and get in touch with investigators if desired.

“We encourage every member of our student body, staff, families, alumni and community who are aware of the matters or issues raised in the August 24, 2020, letter to reach out to the AAPS Helpline at 734-545-2321,” Johnson’s statement reads. “We recognize that reporting sensitive information requires courage.”

But while the investigation continues, members of the Black community in Ann Arbor shared some frustrations with the process so far — and that this is an injustice they’ve been fighting against for years.

The allegations

Makayla Kelsey was a sophomore at Pioneer when one of the school’s math instructors of over 20 years, Michele Macke, began to allegedly bully her. It started with a series of humiliating questions about her mother after Makayla’s health-related absence from school: “Does your mom work? … Does your mom just drop you off and continue with your life?” as reported in the letter. 

From there, Kelsey told the CRLI that the situation escalated. Another allegation describes a physical confrontation in which Macke allegedly grabbed Kelsey’s arm and refused to let go of her after Kelsey tried to pick up a study guide from Macke’s desk. 

A string of allegations from Kelsey as well as other students of color at Pioneer claim Macke also would display the grades of students of color on classroom Smart Boards or verbally share them in acts of “grade shaming,” which is a potential FERPA violation, according to the letter. The Kelseys have filed simultaneous complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Education, the latter of which specifically deals with the FERPA question.

In terms of how Pioneer has responded to these incidents in the past, the letter claims the only disciplinary action Macke has faced was when she was placed on temporary administrative leave while police investigated the alleged arm-grabbing incident, according to FOIA records obtained by CRLI. This is part of why they assert the letter is necessary.

“The Administration is unable or unwilling to control Ms. Macke,” the letter reads. “Students have told us that Ms. Macke has violated their rights to bodily autonomy, to private educational records, and to a safe learning environment free of racial animus and harassment. When a student comes forward with a complaint about Ms. Macke, the Administration has consistently sided with Ms. Macke.”

As the public grade-sharing incident suggests, Kelsey is not the only Pioneer student with allegations of racism to share. In fact, the letter represents the stories of five individually named students, as well as several other students who remained anonymous. It also discusses hostility that members of the Black Student Union have faced from Macke and other instructors.

“While Michele Macke stands out as a particularly bad actor, racism at Pioneer is institutional and not limited to a few individuals,” the letter reads. “Indeed, it was distressing to hear how many Black students and students of color felt that they were treated as second-class citizens.”

The letter doesn’t quite capture everything, however, Kelsey said. Namely, it fails to describe the long-term effects that persist after individual incidents occur, she emphasized in an email to The Daily.

“Students have grown into adults that are emotionally scarred,” Kelsey wrote. “We are ignored, told we’re liars, basically told by teachers and administrators that we are worthless, and get picked on because we’re in a certain club. It’s time for a change.”

The investigation

After receiving the letter from the CRLI in August — as well as discussions of these allegations at school board meetings from BSU members in February and an October protest organized by Charmelle Kelsey — AAPS responded to the letter, announcing the beginning of the independent investigation by the Dykema firm. In Johnson’s November statement, AAPS also committed to making a summary of the results of this investigation available to the public. 

AAPS trustee Susan Baskett said in an interview with The Daily that the investigation is crucial, as it will finally document the ongoing issue of systemic racism in the district. Baskett, a Pioneer alumna herself whose term as trustee ends in 2022, said she has experienced racism throughout her schooling and that while these allegations are nothing new, compiling them is.

“It’s kind of like all these recipes are all over the place (and) we need it in one book,” Baskett said. “In this case, it’s all these stories and allegations. Can we get it in one report? … Maybe it’s too big for one report. Maybe the report will say … ‘This is what we’ve come up with. Therefore, we recommend doing another investigation’ — I don’t know. But … I hope I’ll be able to have some input before I leave.”

Baskett also said she hopes as many young people as possible come forward with their stories. She specifically thanked the students of color who had the “courage and commitment” to be part of the 14-page letter, but urged them to come forward again so the investigation can be as thorough as possible. 

“I think it’s only fair for them that they be part of the report, in talking with the investigators,” Baskett said. “Of course, I can’t force that. I understand that. But if you were committed to putting it in a letter, you know, which triggered this — and I’m happy for it, don’t get me wrong — then why not be part of the resolving, … part of the investigation, so that we can get to a resolution.”

A month after Johnson’s announcement regarding the plans for a public release, CRLI sent another letter to AAPS. In this follow-up, they claimed the Board had “no plans to make the report public.” This allegation was inaccurate given Johnson’s earlier announcement.

Representatives from CRLI, however, said they were never directly notified of Johnson’s commitment to doing so and the announcement was “hidden” and difficult to navigate to on the AAPS website. Johnson did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this allegation in time for publication. 

Elise Coletta, a student attorney with CRLI, said she believes the lack of accessibility on the board’s part says a lot in terms of the district’s commitment to transparency.

“What’s the summary report?” Coletta asked. “Is that, like, two lines that says we did an investigation and everything was fine, or is it the full thing? … It sounds like what the summary report will be will be whatever the district decides is appropriate, which is not transparent, in our opinion, and does not provide any guarantees for our client or for anyone else that what they say to the investigators will ever see the light of day.”

Coletta and fellow student-attorney Solomon Worlds began working on the Kelseys’ case together in January 2020. They both said transparency has been the biggest frustration in their interactions with AAPS throughout the process.

“In not caring about transparency, it feels like they don’t care about building community trust,” Worlds said. “They’ve hurt the community. Specifically the Black community. … The administration is … at least ignoring a lot of parents and a lot of outcry about this exact issue.” 

Since CRLI’s follow-up letter, some community members have also called for greater transparency in terms of the investigation. A community organization called Ann Arbor School Parents Intent on Racial Equity launched a petition March 10, calling for the “full results and recommendations” of the investigation to be made public and for redactions to be “limited to those necessary to ensure privacy protection” for those who request it. 

The Kelseys have echoed this request, urging the district to ensure these stories see the light of day. 

“An investigation can be both transparent and respect confidentiality,” Charmelle Kelsey wrote. “Stories can be told with names redacted. But what cannot happen is the district receives a report and hides it from the public, or releases a one-sentence summary saying, ‘nothing has been found.’”

At the University of Michigan in 2020, an independent investigation by the law firm WilmerHale into decades of allegations of sexual misconduct against former provost Martin Philbert used the “simultaneous release” model, in which the results and recommendations of the investigation were shared with the Board of Regents and University officials at the same time as it was released to the public. One key difference between the WilmerHale and Dykema investigations, is that the Philbert case did not deal with minors, which Baskett highlighted in an interview with The Daily. 

According to Baskett, AAPS has a contractual and ethical obligation to guarantee young people’s rights to privacy.

“If names are named, then I do think we need to do a little more digging, and I think it’s only fair to say, ‘Hey, you were named,’ to give the person forewarning, so that he or she can prepare their families themselves or to to offer up a side of the story,” Baskett said.

At the end of the day, Baskett said this is not nontransparent, but an effort to put students’ needs — including those regarding privacy — first.

“It is not a cover up,” Baskett said. “I don’t think we as a board — this particular board — have given anyone a reason that we would cover up for anybody.”

Envisioning racial justice at AAPS

Considering these allegations of systemic racism — which some say are years in the making — what could racial justice in AAPS look like?

Charmelle Kelsey explained her vision for the future of Pioneer in an email to The Daily.

“Justice in AAPS would be creating a system that encourages students to make complaints about bias,” Charmelle Kelsey wrote. “Justice would be for the curriculum and the staff in the schools to reflect the student population. Justice would be terminating the employment of Michele Macke.”

Coletta and Worlds also commented on a commonality they have observed across the students consulted for the case: a hope for a better, more inclusive environment for students of color who come to Pioneer after them.

“They’re not in this for them(selves),” Coletta said. “Our client (Makayla) is a junior — she’s going to graduate in less than a year and a half. She knows that she’s on her way out. But she also knows that there are middle schoolers right now who are already nervous about coming to Pioneer because of the issues that they’ve heard about at the school, specifically with the teacher but also with the administration.”

Baskett shared that personally, she is looking at the report from multiple angles. She is an alumna, a parent, an aunt and the sibling of a former AAPS student who “did not do well” but “who should have by all means,” in his time at AAPS. Baskett said these issues have been on her mind long before her work with AAPS and will stay that way long past when her term concludes.

“If the report comes out and I can be able to say, ‘Aha, see I told you. I told you we should have done this,’ then I will feel vindicated, if you will,” Baskett said. “But the report also may open my eyes to something totally different that I hadn’t seen, so I’m looking forward to the report, but I’m hoping that the report will get everyone’s voice, especially those students who, again, came forth in the very beginning with the letter.”

In a year of reckoning with how deeply ingrained racism is in the fabric of American society — with the education system being no exception — Charmelle Kelsey reflected on how her and her daughter’s efforts fit into a broader movement.

“It’s unreal how it’s the year 2021 and people are tirelessly fighting for racial equality and justice in our school system,” Charmelle Kelsey wrote. “I continue to be hopeful that the leaders of our school district and city help us to advance in the progress of this movement.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at [email protected]

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