Pioneer High School parent Charmelle Kelsey filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Ann Arbor Public Schools on Tuesday, in the latest of several attempts to make AAPS acknowledge racial disparities in their school system. The suit claims AAPS withheld public documents Kelsey believed would provide evidence of racial discrimination at Pioneer High School, according to a press release from the University of Michigan Civil Rights Litigation Initiative.
In August 2020, the CRLI sent a letter to AAPS on behalf of Charmelle and her daughter, then-Pioneer High School student Makayla Kelsey. The letter claims that a pattern of institutional racism exists at Pioneer High School, based on interviews conducted with the Kelseys and other students of color.
Earlier this year, Charmelle Kelsey and Makayla Kelsey filed a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and another complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against AAPS. The FERPA investigation concluded earlier this year when AAPS admitted that Pioneer High School teacher Michele Macke violated federal law by displaying students’ grades on a public SmartBoard. The Department of Education closed its investigation after AAPS acknowledged fault and it was ensured Ms. Macke underwent additional FERPA training. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights investigation is still ongoing.
There are currently two petitions circulating calling for the removal of Ms. Macke from Pioneer High School. The petitions cite Ms. Macke’s history of racial antagonism and claim she has created a hostile environment for students. Combined, the petitions have amassed more than 1,000 signatures.
Charmelle Kelsey filed the most recent lawsuit after the Ann Arbor School District did not provide documents in response to FOIA requests she submitted on August 30, 2021, in a timely manner. Kelsey submitted the FOIA requests to determine if photographs of the Black Student Union’s senior members were excluded from the 2020 yearbook, why the Black Student Union was excluded from the 2020 yearbook, if there are discrepancies between disciplinary actions taken against white students and students of color and to obtain the terms of engagement between AAPS and the Dykema Gossett law firm hired to investigate racial hostilities in the AAPS system.
Charmelle Kelsey also hoped the documents requested under the FOIA would provide information on why Ms. Macke, the teacher found guilty of violating the FERPA, was the only faculty member to greet and shake hands with seniors at Pioneer High School’s graduation ceremony.
“We’re tired of Pioneer High School whitewashing over the race discrimination that our children must deal with,” Charmelle Kelsey said in the press release. “The school doesn’t want to give us the information we’re asking for because it would show everyone how bad things have been for Makayla and the other Black students and how little the school has done to stop it.”
Under FOIA, government agencies, upon receiving a request, must provide public documents within a reasonable time and a reasonable estimate by which the documents will be fulfilled. According to the lawsuit, AAPS did not provide the required estimate.
Charmelle Kelsey’s attorneys inquired into when they could expect AAPS to produce the documents on October 26, 2021, and AAPS did not respond to that inquiry, the lawsuit alleges. Since the FOIA request was submitted, AAPS has provided only one allegedly incomplete document in response to Charmelle Kelsey’s 23 requests, according to the Kelseys’ attorneys.
Ben Mordechai-Stongin, a student attorney with the Civil Rights Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School, which is representing Charmelle Kelsey in her suit, said in the press release this is a part of AAPS’s history of avoiding issues related to alleged racial hostility within its schools.
“The District’s failure to comply with state law and provide these documents is consistent with a pattern of hiding racial problems at the school,” Mordechai-Strongin said in the press release.
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