Mayor Ron Bacon to address violence at East Lansing High School

EAST LANSING — East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon will host a school and public safety listening session on Friday following recent violent incidents at East Lansing High School.

Bacon invited East Lansing Public Schools parents and guardians and community members to attend the session and share school and public safety feedback and concerns from 5:30 to 7 pm Friday in the banquet hall at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road.

“There have been a few recent, challenging incidents at East Lansing High School as well as some other public safety concerns raised by our community. In light of those incidents and concerns, we want to hear from people and do whatever we can to support our schools and ensure safety,” Bacon said in a press release. “This Friday’s listening session will be hosted to hear from people who have requested to talk to us, and we hope to be able to come away from it with some solutions.”

Bacon will be joined by East Lansing City Council member Dana Watson. Bacon did not immediately respond to message Wednesday afternoon.

A parking lot brawl after an East Lansing High School basketball game Jan. 19 marked the latest act of violence at the high school and proved to be the tipping point for many.

In the incident, two groups of East Lansing High School students fought in the parking lot, according to Superintendent Dori Leyko, who addressed the fight during a lengthy Board of Education meeting Monday. Two school staff members intervened and tried to stop the fighting. One of the staff members saw a firearm fall from the belongings of one of the students involved.

During the meeting, Madelyn Zink, a high school math teacher, said she volunteered to attend the game and cheer for her students. She was about to go home and grade papers when she was called instead to help break up the fight.

“For the past six years, I have dreamed of driving down Burcham to come to work and for the past five days, I pull into the parking lot and break down not knowing if I am safer in the parking lot where (the fight) occurred or the school building,” Zink said.

Leyko said the East Lansing Police Department opened an investigation. School staff members reviewed video footage and videos recorded by students to identify those involved. Officials determined the person seen with the firearm was an East Lansing High School student who had been enrolled in the school’s online program, Leyko said.

Another fight broke out in the school Friday morning when two students who were being guided to the office by a school administrator went after a group of students sitting outside the school’s media center, according to Leyko.

In the latest situation, East Lansing High School was placed on lockdown for about two hours Tuesday while administrators investigated a report of a gun in the school that proved to be unfounded.

East Lansing Police Capt. Chad Pride said there was no weapon found in the school and that initially parents, not school officials, called the police to learn more after their children told them about the lockdown and officers responded to the school. The school was searched by district officials, Pride said.

Leyko has not responded to questions about how and when police were notified of a potential threat.

During Monday’s meeting, several parents and speakers criticized the school’s communication with families and the community concerning the Jan. 19 fight.

“It is clear from that meeting, and in hindsight, that timely communication should have gone to high school staff members and families late Thursday night so folks were informed of the events of Thursday evening and plans for Friday,” Leyko said.

“In retrospect, we should have handled communication with staff and student removal from school differently,” she continued, trying to hold back tears. “I acknowledge that and apologize to all of you for the fear and anxiety those mistakes cost. We can and will do better.”

Several speakers at Monday’s meeting called for the district to hire more security officers and a school resource officer.

When Leyko first became superintendent eight years ago, she said the district employed two security guards for the high school and a school resource officer who split time across all of the school buildings in the district. The funds that allowed for those positions were “repurposed,” Leyko said, and instead were used to hire school personnel to monitor hallways and to support students and families.

Now the district has two full-time student advocates, two full-time hall monitors, and one full-time staffer from Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that assigns staff to working inside schools to “connect students to caring adults and community resources that help them see, confront, and overcome the barriers that stand between them and a brighter future,” according to the organization’s website.

A counselor and social worker was also added to the high school when students returned to in-person learning following months of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a communication sent to families on Tuesday, the Board of Education said it was “committed to” directing the superintendent and her team to bring recommendations to the Board of Education for short-term and long-term safety enhancements across the school district.

East Lansing Educational Association representative and high school social studies teacher Mark Pontoni made eight demands of the school district, including a cellphone ban, limiting entry points to the school, banning backpacks in classrooms and expulsion of students who bring firearms to school.

The East Lansing Student Council Executive Board sent a letter to East Lansing Public Schools student, teachers, families and community members and made three demands, including enforcing punishments and providing clear consequences for student actions, the resignation of Kath Edsall, president of the Board of Education, and increased mental health supports for students and staff affected by violence.

A community petition was circulating this week also calling for a change in leadership on the Board of Education. The petition, which had collected more than 370 signatures by Wednesday afternoon, calls for the resignation of Edsall and other unnamed board members because of their “refusal to recognize the need for a safe learning environment.”

Board members said they were committed to hosting a meeting with safety experts, the ELPD, East Lansing City Council and others to discuss coordinated plans to improve safety in schools and the community. They also committed to regular, transparent communication with the community at school board meetings concerning efforts to address safety concerns.

Contact Mark Johnson at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMarkJohnson.

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