Community High grapples with allegations of mishandling of sexual assault, Title IX investigations

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 8:50pm

Community High School faces allegations of regularly failing to properly file Title IX documentation forms.

Community High School faces allegations of regularly failing to properly file Title IX documentation forms. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Leah Graham

Starting at 7:45 a.m. every weekday, about 450 students walk throughout the painted hallways of Community High School, Ann Arbor’s “alternative” and highly selective public high school. As one of the oldest “magnet” schools in the country, Community High School offers specialized courses and curricula that attracts families all across the city. Students can enlist in a number of clubs and courses such as Board Game Club, Architecture and Design Club, Fashion Club, Feminist Club and Poetry Club. Any student is able to write for The Communicator student newspaper or participate in the spring musical through the Community Ensemble Theatre. Since 1972, Community High School has held the title of the “number one public school of choice for students of Ann Arbor Public Schools.”

Then, on the morning of April 25, Jenny Hannibal, parent of a Community High School student, filed a Title IX complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, alleging Ann Arbor Public Schools mishandled at least a dozen cases of sexual misconduct, including a rape on campus by an expelled student. 

Hannibal later withdrew her statement due to factual inaccuracies but plans to re-file a revised version. A previously scheduled parent meeting at Community High School conducted by AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift commenced just 20 minutes after the withdrawl of the statement.

As Community High School student Gablen Vanderelzen expressed, these events took the student population by surprise, causing them to wonder, “how could this happen?”

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In the initial complaint, Hannibal claimed Community High School regularly failed to properly file Title IX documentation forms. The complaint also accused the school of neglecting to notify the police in multiple cases of sexual assault and the victim’s parents in at least one incident of sexual assault. Hannibal mentioned Michigan’s mandated reporting laws, which require mandatory reporters, such as school administrators and teachers, to disclose suspected child abuse and neglect to the police. 

In addition, the complaint alleged that Community High School Dean, Marci Tuzinsky, discouraged staff members from reporting alleged assaults and even threatened to transfer a teacher who attempted to notify Paul DeAngelis, AAPS executive director of high school education and Title IX coordinator.

Vanderelzen expressed he was surprised by the claims in the complaint. 

“I never expected something like this to happen here,” Vanderelzen said. “It just doesn’t seem like a school where this kind of thing would be an issue. It seems like all the teachers and all the administration are really cool people.”

Unlike Vanderelzen, some Community students, like Leda Celeste, were not surprised by the assaults themselves, but instead with the alleged mishandling by administration.

“It’s not a matter of, ‘we’re surprised this happens in high schools’ but as much as, if we needed to go to our principal or our teachers about something that serious, we wouldn’t want their reaction to be so stern about it,” Celeste said. “We would want them to be like, ‘Oh, we understand, and we’re hearing you out,’ rather than the allegations that were made.”

About 24 hours after the complaint was filed, Tuzinsky sent an email to the parents of Community High School students, addressing the accusations. A statement was also placed on AAPS’s website by Swift expressing the district is confident it has acted within the law. 

“I can assure you that when a situation emerges regarding the safety of our students, members of our team follow appropriate steps,” Swift wrote. “While we are not able to speak directly to the specifics of this case as those matters are protected under Federal privacy laws, we absolutely can assure that we consistently follow this protocol and steps as appropriate in matters of student safety.”

Within the initial 24 hours, Community High School student Ariana Levin said the responses students posted to social media were largely conjecture.

“I think a few kids were talking about it in the halls, and people overheard it, and it sort of blew up a little bit from the start,” Levin said. “People were posting it on social media. People were putting it on their stories on Snapchat, on Instagram.”

Community High School student Chelsea Clemetson said this 24 hour delay in communication by administration seemed to signify a disregard to the immediate effect the complaint had on students.

I don’t think anyone was surprised sexual assault happened in a U.S. high school because, unfortunately, it is something that happens, and it is something we’re trying to get under control,” Clemetson said. “I think what I was upset with most was the lack of communication and support from the staff and Dean Marci. What we needed after that was for the dean or staff members to talk to us and say, ‘We’re sorry this happened’ and that ‘We’re going to do something about this, and we’re there if anyone needs to talk.’ An email wasn’t sent out to us until the end of the school day after (the complaint) came out, 24 hours after the complaint.”

Five days after the accusations were published, Swift conducted a meeting at 7:45 a.m. for a group of almost 100 Community High School parents, Ann Arbor residents and at least four Community High School students. Alongside Swift was Lt. Aimee Metzer of the Ann Arbor Police Department, Pioneer High social worker Jonathan Stern and representatives from the sexual assault center Safe House

In an interview with MLive, Community student Morgan Fitzgerald said “it was strongly hinted" that students should not attend the meeting.

Swift began the meeting by reading her statement posted on Community’s website asserting the district had acted according to traditional Title IX protocol and that “no administrator suppressed or discouraged any report of an incident described in the complaint.” Swift also presented newly established support resources such as a Title IX hotline available to all students.

“To be clear, I have carefully reviewed the allegations included in the complaint made by a parent to the Office for Civil Rights of which we became aware last week,” Swift said. “While I cannot comment on individual cases ... I want to note that there are a number of material factual inaccuracies contained in the proposed complaint. In the event that OCR chooses to investigate this matter, we will correct the record.”

Twenty minutes prior to the Tuesday meeting, Hannibal announced in a Facebook post she was retracting her complaint, citing significant inaccuracies. Hannibal said she plans to rewrite it and submit it to the Office of Civil Rights.

“In the last day, I have also become much more aware of the ways that Community High School teachers and staff have carefully handled incidents of sexual assault with the utmost concern for the students involved,” Hannibal wrote. “I remain concerned about district policy around responding to incidents of sexual assault, and am committed to working with teachers and administration to help shape a more transparent and consistent policy that reflects national best practices.”

After Hannibal withdrew her statement, Community students like Bao Polkowski said they felt more conflicted than before.

“Ever since it came out with misinformation, for me personally, I don’t really know what to think,” Polkowski said. “It kind of feels awful knowing that there is someone in our school that could be involved in any of that kind of activity. It hasn’t affected me directly, but it’s definitely in the air. I just want there to be more communication. I just want to know a little more about what is going on.”

Similar to Polkowski, Community student Maria Weeder became “more uncomfortable” after the retraction of the complaint.

“I kind of feel like I know one of the people who (were) filed against,” Weeder said. “It makes me uncomfortable for my friends. I hope the administration actually (does) something about it instead of throwing it under the bus. I’m just hoping they address it better than they have been.”

In an email to The Daily, Hannibal reflected on parent appreciation for her complaint and her next steps for a potential reissuing.

“I am having ongoing conversations with a board member to get some clarity around what I got right, and where I didn’t see the complete picture,” Hannibal wrote. “Several families have reached out and asked to testify to the Office of Civil Rights regarding their own daughters’ cases and how they were handled … If I hadn’t shared it publicly, we wouldn’t be having these important and meaningful conversations about the topic. I’m not a public person by nature; I am grateful to everyone who is keeping the topic, and potential ways to improve, in the light where it belongs.”

When The Daily asked for an updated comment from Dr. Swift and Dean Tuzinsky, The Daily was redirected to Community’s previously published statements.

According to Community student Sophia Berry, the staff have seemingly moved on from the matter. Berry said she and her peers still feel conflicted.

“I think that a lot of the students mainly talk to themselves,” Berry said. “It’s not something the staff are involved with anymore. I feel like the school is trying to take precautions to make the school feel more comfortable, but I don’t think the students really agree with it.” 

However, Berry is hopeful an accurate complaint will be resubmitted and change will eventually occur not only in Ann Arbor, but across the state of Michigan.

“I know the Title IX complaint was unsubmitted, but they’re submitting it, so I hope that all the information is true, and that it’ll actually make a difference in the school, because this is an issue not only in Community,” Berry said. “It can definitely be seen in the district and in the state, so if this is something that can be brought to the attention of others, that can be really helpful to other students and not just ours.”