Approximately 30 students, parents and local organizers held a Black Students Matter protest to call on the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education to address a reportedly hostile environment for students of color at Pioneer High School. Makayla Kelsey, a 16-year old Pioneer student, and her mother, Charmelle Kelsey, organized the event.
The protest consisted of an hour of rallying in front of the school with speakers such as incoming Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit and School Board candidates Jamila James and Krystle Dupree. The speakers talked about wanting more transparency from the Board of Education, specifically in regards to their handling of racial injustice that Black students face in the classroom. Later on, the rally transitioned into a march around the block of the school shouting, “Black Student Lives Matter.”
The Kelseys submitted a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in August alleging a racially hostile environment for Black students at Pioneer.
In addition to the complaint, the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, a University of Michigan Law School clinic, sent a letter written on behalf of Makayla Kelsey and Charmelle Kelsey to Pioneer and Ann Arbor Public Schools. The letter, addressed to AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift; Paul DeAngelis, executive director of high school education; and Pioneer Principal Tracey Lowder, describes instances of racism at Pioneer alleged by the Kelseys and other Black students.
“Over the past few months, we have spoken with the Kelseys and numerous current and former Pioneer Black students and students of color,” the letter reads. “The stories of the indignities they have suffered at Pioneer because of their race are heart-wrenching and disturbing. We write this long letter to amplify their voices and to strongly urge you to redress the systemic racism at Pioneer. Black Lives Matter.”
The letter recommended Pioneer address institutional racism by hiring an external civil rights organization to investigate racism at the school, encouraging students to file complaints when faced with an instance of racial bias and terminating the employment of Michele Macke, a math teacher alleged in the letter to be hostile towards Black students at the school.
The letter alleges Macke, who has worked at the school for more than 20 years, intentionally insults Black students in front of her classes, has displayed the grades of her students of color on the board when they are absent from class, has non-consensually grabbed Black students in the hallway and displays contempt toward the school’s Black Student Union.
Additionally, the letter describes multiple alleged instances of racism towards Kelsey and other Black students at the school. The letter says AAPS has refused to give the CRLI the documents detailing the complaints of racial discrimination from 2018 to the present and complaints against Macke, which the CRLI requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
Swift released a statement on Friday responding to the allegations brought forward by the letter, writing that the district denounces all acts of bias, bigotry and hatred. She noted in the letter that the district hired the law firm Dykema Gossett to conduct a full and independent investigation of the allegations.
“In the AAPS, we take this situation and the matters outlined in that letter very seriously,” Swift wrote. “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.”
At the protest, Charmelle Kelsey told The Michigan Daily it has taken the district too long to act on the allegations. She said she hopes the protest will push the Board of Education to do the right thing and take action by moving forward with the letter’s demands and making the private investigation public.
“I just feel that the public and the community and parents in the community especially, they have the right to know what’s going on in the school, they have the right to know how the investigation goes and they have the right to know the findings and how the school is going to handle the results of the investigation,” Charmelle Kelsey said.
James and Dupree, the candidates for School Board who attend the protest, both spoke about the need for change from the current board. James said it is the responsibility of the school board to support the students, and teachers and directors of the school board need to be held accountable for their actions.
“It’s important to support all our children, and if we know something that is not going well for our children, regardless of their color, it’s our responsibility to do something about it,” James said. “It’s unacceptable because teachers are in positions of power no matter how you look at it. People that are in positions of power need to have accountability for their actions.”
Dupree said the protest expands to the Ann Arbor community as a whole. She said students should be the ones leading and the parents and teachers are the ones that should be listening.
“I think this protest is not really just limited to the board,” Dupree said. “It’s actually a community thing. As a community we’ve been working very hard on allyship and learning how we can connect to each other and understand these intersections. Right now, we have an intersection of students being Black and students, that they are experiencing things that we don’t really understand as parents because we're not there with them all day long.”
Law student Martese Johnson, who works at the CRLI, expressed his excitement about the protest.
“I think that it's beautiful, even in hard times like the pandemic, to see community members come together, identify the issue that we believe is unjust and come together to actually fight for an informative issue,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the protest not only addresses Kelsey’s demands, but is also a movement in addressing systemic racism at Pioneer overall.
“What we’re doing today will serve the Kelseys but it’ll additionally serve Black students for generations to come,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited about this work, and I think that is really meaningful. We should all continue to push for these reforms in order to ensure that Black students have the same opportunities, academic and socially, as their white peers.”
Pioneer High School juniors Kiaja Reed and Ashley Abraham attended the protest and expressed their views about the issue with the school board and the racist incidents with Macke, the teacher who was named in the letter as acting with hostility toward Black students. Reed said she came to support students at the school who have faced instances of racism at the school.
“I never really ran into racial problems, but I know a lot of people who have, so I’m just glad things like this will make them change, and the teachers realize that what they’re doing is wrong so they don’t do it to more students,” Reed said.
Abraham, another Pioneer High School junior, expressed how the protest brought a comfortable space to share her story because other people there had similar experiences.
“It’s nice hearing people’s stories and having other people feel the same uncomfortableness that I was feeling,” Abraham said.
Parents who showed concern about the Ann Arbor school board and the racist incidents occurring at Pioneer High School also showed up to the protest in support of the Kelseys’ demands.
Xan Morgan, a member of Ann Arbor School Parents Intent on Racial Equity, said she is inspired by the demands being asked of the school.
“It’s really important to have transparency around what the problems are,” Morgan said. “It’s really important for students to be able to report what’s going and to have accountability. The district would continue to fail at their work of educating each and every child each and every day if they don’t respond to the demands.”
Daily Staff Reporter Ann Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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