A recent incident in Fowlerville has drawn renewed attention to the issue of race relations in Livingston County schools. Michigan civil rights officials say some districts are seeking to engage on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, but they are choosing to do so quietly to try and avoid the types of disruptions seen in the past year at various school board meetings in the traditionally conservative area.
On Jan. 27, during a boys’ basketball game at Fowlerville High School, fans sitting in the student section made what were described as “loud monkey motions and sounds” directed at Black players with Haslett High School, while parents of one of the Haslett players alleged their son and his teammates were subjected to racial slurs by players during the game.
Fowlerville Superintendent Wayne Roedel previously confirmed for the Michigan Advance that a white player made a “racist remark to a Haslett player that was unacceptable.” He added that their findings and “sincerest apologies” were shared with the Haslett administration and that those students involved would face consequences, although he did not elaborate as those involved are minors.
It is just the latest incident that has highlighted racial tensions in the county’s schools. In March 2021, 18-year-old Tatayana Vanderlaan posted to Facebook about repeated incidents she said she had endured at Hartland High School, including being called the n-word and being ridiculed about her hair and her appearance. After that post went viral, Vanderlaan said she had to be escorted off campus due to a threat of being lynched. Four students were later charged in that case with various counts, including stalking and assault and battery. As those charges were filed in the juvenile court system, the outcome of those cases remains shielded from the public.
The incident also prompted the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) to reach out to the district and arrange for a visit by their Community Engagement Team “to assist in evaluating their policies and to offer training help.’’ Following that visit, the Hartland Board of Education created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee to examine policies, practices, and procedures to ensure that they were not negatively impacting the learning environment.
However, the committee quickly received pushback from some parents in the district, who turned out at board meetings alleging the committee was being used to try to teach critical race theory (CRT). That’s become a big issue for Republicans in the midterm elections, with area state Sen. Laina Theis (R-Brighton) among those sponsoring legislation to ban it.
Despite being taught almost exclusively at the university level, opponents of CRT have defined it as an attempt to indoctrinate liberal social values in K-12 students through the lens of race. Scholars generally define it as an “attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice.”
When asked about the resistance to Hartland’s cooperation with the MDCR, Anthony Lewis, the head of the agency’s Community Engagement Team, told the Michigan Advance that it definitely had an effect, citing the “considerable pushback” that interacting with the department created. While he said he believes the district is moving forward with that process internally, it is doing so without their assistance.
“I believe we completed the beginning stages of work,” he said. “As far as comprehensive work that we would like to do with all districts? No, I would not say we were able to complete comprehensive work, because our comprehensive work involves working with parents and students, but we are still open to working with them as they move through this process.”
Part of that process also involved dealing with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) “specifically to the district’s handling of alleged incidents of student-on-student harassment based on students’ race.”
However, Hartland Superintendent Chuck Hughes said the district had cooperated with both the MDCR and DOJ “fully” and are also “working to ensure that all policies, practices and procedures ensure that every student and adult in the district has the opportunity to engage fully in all that we have to offer as an educational organization.”
Hughes added that the district’s board of education “supports this work fully,” including the development of what he called “a tighter management and follow up process” that was based on input from the DOJ. Hughes said that was done to ensure they are always “documenting and following up with any student making poor choices and those who are affected by these choices.” One of the complaints Vanderlaan made was that in one instance she was ridiculed about her hair and her appearance, and that a teacher “heard it all and said nothing.”
Another piece of their efforts, Hughes said, is aimed at helping students develop the skills to advocate for themselves and others with a focus on empathy.
“This is done through our social-emotional learning education effort,” he said. “In a recent parent perception survey, 87% of parents responding [junior kindergarten-8th grade] indicated that they ‘value’ our work with teaching SEL skills.”
Meanwhile, in the Brighton Area Schools district, an incident last year angered some in the community in which a young white male, identified by multiple parents and their children as a Brighton High School student, posted videos of himself in blackface, both wearing a cowboy hat and making a Black Power sign with his fist. Another video showed the same teen in red paint with an anti-gay slur written across his forehead. While not taken on school property or during school hours, they prompted concern from several parents who said it was representative of an ongoing culture of racial intolerance permeating the district.
Those pictures, along with a 2018 incident in which a Black child in the second grade reportedly had a knit cap with artificial locks involuntarily placed on his head by a teacher, prompting the ACLU of Michigan to request that the MDCR address the racial climate within Brighton Area Schools. However, Lewis said those efforts were ultimately rebuffed.
“Unfortunately, with Brighton High School, they were not receptive to our efforts to engage,” he said. “We continue to communicate with the district leadership, but they were not receptive to a full engagement with our department. I do recognize that they are engaged with other vendors, with other professionals. It’s just with our particular engagement that they have not had direct engagement with.”
When contacted by the Michigan Advance last month, Mark Fancher, a staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan, called it “disheartening” that despite the MDCR making special efforts to engage with the school district and “make available to it the resources, knowledge and guidance the agency can provide,” Brighton administrators rejected the opportunity out of hand.
“Racial tensions in schools present exceptional challenges because they are usually connected in some way to racial dynamics in the broader community,” said Fancher. Those dynamics in Brighton Area Schools remain one-sided, where approximately 93% of the student body is white and 1% is Black, but also in Livingston County as a whole, where just over 96% of the community identified as white, while only .7% are Black.
“School administrators don’t have opportunities to work on these issues with everyone in the community,” said Fancher, “so their work with students and district personnel must be designed with expertise and great care. If Brighton School District administrators are selecting programs based only on convenience or affordability or similar factors so that it can “check off the box,” then they risk doing more harm than good.”
Fancher added that the resolution of the ACLU’s complaint concerning “the racial humiliation” of the second grader “is tied directly to the broader racial issues that are present in the school district.” He says the concern is not solely focused on that particular incident, but also the racial climate that child will experience in the district as he progresses through the grade levels.
“The complaint remains pending with MDCR, and it was our hope that if the school district had accepted and embraced the MDCR Community Engagement Division’s offer of assistance, any reforms that might have come out of that engagement might have given my client and his family enough confidence in the district to resolve the matter. Unfortunately, we are left in an adversarial posture.”
When contacted by the Michigan Advance for a reaction to the criticism from both the MDCR and ACLU, Brighton Superintendent Matthew Outlaw said that the district had been working on these issues, just not with those agencies. “Culture and climate continue to be important areas of focus for the Brighton Area Schools,” said Outlaw. “As you know, we have been working with Horacio Sanchez from Resiliency Inc. since last summer. We will continue our efforts to provide the optimal learning environment for all BAS students.”
Resiliency Inc. describes itself as “an agency leader in helping schools improve school climate, instruction, and discipline,” while Sanchez “is recognized as one of the nation’s prominent experts on promoting student resiliency and applying brain science to improve school outcomes.” Sanchez is believed to have conducted at least two personal development workshops in 2021 for BAS staff members, on Sept. 2 and Oct. 11.
While the details of those sessions remain unknown (Sanchez has not returned a request for comment) he did hold an earlier session in January 2021 with the Livingston Educational Service Agency (LESA) on the issue of implicit bias. “Another amazing morning w the Livingston ESA Leadership Cohort as we continue our series with The Do’s and Don’t of Dealing with Implicit Bias,” Sanchez stated in a tweet dated Jan. 28, 2021. “Many of the steps agencies take to promote equality and diversity cause negative reactions to the brain and often make situations worst.”
However, his hiring was not universally welcomed by members of the Brighton Board of Education. Liz Mosher, assistant superintendent of curriculum, at a Sept. 27 board meeting reported on the initial workshop on Sept. 2, which she said was “very well received” by staff. However, Trustee John Conely questioned Sanchez’s hiring, referring to the previous LESA training with local superintendents that contained material he said “wouldn’t be supported by the voters” in Livingston County.
Conely has courted controversy on issues surrounding bias. Less than two months after that meeting, he was called out by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) following comments he made comparing a proposed mask mandate to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 with the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler. Carolyn Nornandin, the regional director of ADL Michigan, said she was “deeply disturbed” by the connection made by Conely, which she termed “shameful.”
Conley’s comments are also now the subject of a recall effort. He also did not respond to a request for comment.
The MDCR’s Lewis says despite the “considerable pushback” that districts have received, he would not say that districts “have taken their foot off the gas.”
Instead, he thinks “they’ve just been less public with their efforts,” adding that at the intermediate school district level, there are “robust programs and professionals that work that work directly with the schools and that because we partner with them also in in the actual buildings that work with teachers and administrators on school climate or cultural competence. And so, the work is happening, and the work is ongoing. I just think that they are being less promotional, so to speak, with their efforts, given the considerable pushback. But the efforts are still ongoing.”
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