ANN ARBOR, MI – An investigation has found an Ann Arbor Public Schools student’s claim that she and other Black students at Pioneer High School faced a racially hostile environment were not corroborated or did not meet the legal standard for a racially hostile environment for Black students.
The investigation, initiated after a Black student at Pioneer filed a complaint in August 2020 with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, also concluded there was no just cause to terminate the employment of the teacher central to the allegations made by the student.
The investigation, done by law firm Dykema was stymied, however, due to Dykema’s inability to interview the student who made the primary allegations of a racially hostile climate, her mother or other anonymous students who made claims of alleged racism they faced.
The report notes the student, Makayla Kelsey, and her mother, Charmelle Kelsey, who filed the complaint, were not made available by their attorneys with the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School to be interviewed for the investigation. The CRLI interviewed numerous current and former Black Pioneer High students and students of color before filing the complaint the spurred the investigation on Aug. 24, 2020.
“Their absence affected the investigation team’s ability to hear their version of the events, gain valuable follow-up information, or assess their credibility,” a letter addressing the report signed by Ann Arbor School Board President Rebecca Lazarus and board members states.
Dykema’s report states that because the Kelseys are represented by the CRLI, it could not contact them directly, but had to ask members of the initiative if they would make them available.
“The (CRLI) repeatedly refused to make them available for interviews unless the AAPS Board of Education agreed in advance to make this report public, which the BOE was not willing,” the report states.
After the investigation was initiated, however, several AAPS board members expressed a desire that the results of the investigation be made public.
In February 2020, students petitioned the teacher at the center of the allegations, Michele Macke, be removed at Pioneer, arguing she’s created an unsafe environment. Some Pioneer students were unhappy the teacher was allowed back in the classroom after a student was grabbed by the arm while trying to retrieve an assignment she missed, leading the teacher to being temporarily put on leave.
Despite a police investigation that resulted in no charges being authorized by the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, students believe the incident was an example of the teacher’s inappropriate handling of a Black student in the classroom.
The Dykema report also notes the CRLI did not make available other Pioneer students who were in Makayla Kelsey’s class that made claims in the initial letter outlining the complaint against Pioneer, which “obviously affected the conduct of the investigation.”
It also notes those who made anonymous claims in a 14-page letter describing the alleged racism the student and other Black students faced at the school were not made available for interviews by CRLI without assurances the report would be made public prior to the initiation of the investigation.
“Whether or not it may have altered any or all of our findings, we can only speculate,” the report states. “However, it is extraordinary for one to allege discrimination, request that an investigation be conducted, talk to the media about the issue, but refuse to participate in an ensuing investigation.”
In December 2020, the CRLI, on behalf of the Kelseys, wrote a letter to the district requesting a commitment that the report would be made public and that students were reluctant to participate in the investigation unless there was an assurance that the report would not be a “whitewashed.”
“AAPS refused to make a commitment to release the report or waive attorney-client privilege until they could see what the report says,” CRLI Director Mike Steinberg said.
The investigation was unable to confirm a number of the claims Makayla Kelsey and other anonymous students made against Macke, including her claims that she was grabbed by Macke. Out of 11 students from the class who agreed to be interviewed, “most said they saw and heard nothing,” the report states.
“According to the interviewees, which included the entire PHS administrative team and many members of AAPS administration, the majority of the statements in the letter, other than Makayla’s report that she was grabbed by Macke, were new to them; the interviewees had not heard virtually any of the other statements before, and as far as they knew, Macke was well respected by students, parents, and staff; nor is there anything in Macke’s personnel file indicating any other complaints against her,” the report states.
The 74-page report, which is now available online, also concluded and states:
- There is a perception of some members of the community, Pioneer staff, students and former students, that there is a racially hostile environment for Black students at Pioneer.
- Some staff members, students and former students believe they have been the victim of racism or discrimination at Pioneer, “which is a significant problem in and of itself.”
- Due to claims made about the teacher central to the student’s allegations and other claims of racism made by Pioneer staff and students, there is a fear on the part of many Pioneer staff members that they will be accused of racism if they do such things as take justified disciplinary action against a Black student, penalize a Black student for not turning in their homework or not excusing a Black student’s absence.
- Pioneer High School has made efforts to have a curriculum that is not “Eurocentric.”
- Pioneer High School has made efforts to increase the number of staff members of color, but while its administration consists entirely of members of under-represented groups, its teaching faculty is still disproportionately white.
Dykema provided recommendations for AAPS based on the perceptions and beliefs of those who raised issue with the school’s racial climate, including a proposed complaint and investigation system; the appointment of a complaint and investigation officer; implementation of an equity plan; teacher and staff training and policy updates.
A six-page letter from AAPS describing “next steps” for the district acknowledges that perceptions of some in the AAPS community “reveal that a racially challenging school and district environment exists,” representing a “continued and significant challenge in the work to move forward.”
The letter outlines several steps the district plans to take to address the racial climate at the school and throughout the district, including:
- Implementing a district strategic equity plan
- Implement and align a central system for reporting racial concerns
- Transforming classroom, school and leadership practices for equity
- Ensure diverse staff and faculty representation across AAPS
“Effective learning and work can only occur in environments where all are welcomed, embraced and celebrated for exactly who they are and trusting relationships are cultivated,” Superintendent Jeanice Swift said in the letter. “Establishing clearly defined systems to address issues when they arise in schools is a priority to ensure that there are clear systems of care, responsibility and accountability.”
The Dykema report summarized that diversity, equity and inclusion has long been an issue of importance to AAPS and the subject of ongoing communications with faculty, staff and community members.
“We are confident, therefore, that the contents of this report will be met with serious consideration and discussion,” the report states.
Dykema conducted interviews with more than 70 people with relevant knowledge of the issues raised in the initial complaint, or, as the investigation proceeded, issues raised in prior interviews. Interviewees included Pioneer staff and faculty, teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators. Also interviewed were five current Pioneer students, Pioneer alums, community members, parents, those who contacted Dykema via e-mail and faculty and administration from two other AAPS schools.
Charmelle Kelsey, the CRLI and representatives from the AAPS Black Parents and Students Support Group were not available for comment for this story.