Parents and students express frustration at “listening session” held for community by mayor


Photo by Quinn Martin

Speaking at the listening session on Friday, Jan. 27, East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon addresses the audience about how the session will run.

Following the announcement Wednesday of a listening session on “Public/School Safety” by East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon, to take place at the Hannah Center, many community members planned to attend. By the time the event began, parents, students, community members, school board members and district administration were in attendance. After the Hannah Center’s conference room, which was being used initially, overflowed with attendees, the event was moved to the Hannah Center’s theater– which also filled up.

The mayor opened the event by speaking about his personal connections to the school, speaking about noting his children and involvement in the school community. After the moderator of the event, Dr. Dorinda Carter Andrews, was introduced, she asked attendees to consider several questions, including what was being done well in areas of school/public safety, what needed attention, recommendations, and finally, the top three priorities for both the mayor and Superintendent Dori Leyko to address.

However, Andrews noted that not everything could be addressed at the event.

“I want you to expect and accept non-closure. You might leave with frustration, a lingering question, and that’s okay,” Andrews said.

Dorinda Andrews speaking
Moderating the listening session on public and school safety, Dr. Dorinda Carter Andrews asks attendees to listen to each other and assume everyone has good intentions. (Photo by Quinn Martin)

Several parents and community members answered the initial question, noting the “resilience of our students” and applauding students who have spoken previously, including Gabe Benavides (12),  the student council school board liaison.

No speaker directly expressed that they were satisfied with the handling of discipline or situations by the board of education and district or school administration, after being prompted with the initial question– which asked the audience to consider what was being done well in terms of school and public safety. Many speakers chose to mention student and staff actions instead.

Many more speakers rose for the next question, relating to areas that needed attention. The section was the longest, lasting a majority of the time, nearly a whole hour. This included several students, such as Sydni Ooten (10), who raised concerns about mental health and the alleged use of drugs, vape, and marijuana in bathrooms.

“We need to bring attention to the violence and mental health issues,” Ooten said. “We also need to bring attention to the drug issues.”

Sitting in the back of the audience, Sydni Ooten (10) speaks about her experience with the bathroom problem at the high school. She also speaks about a couple possible solutions to integrate into the school to reestablish a healthy culture. (Photo by Quinn Martin)

Another student, Caroline Chumbley (9) said she was frustrated with the lack of consequences for offending students.

“If I’m being suspended for leaving school at an unsafe time, they should be punished for bringing weapons onto school property. I think there should be consequences,” Chumbley said. “If these students had consequences when they were younger, this wouldn’t be happening now.”

The other speakers consisted mostly of alumni and parents. Parents expressed anger over lack of consequences, concerned with apparent rises in violence.

Rufus Jackson, an alumni and one of the football coaches at the high school, pointed out that issues are ongoing.

“A lot of the things that are going on now have been going on for years. They’re just highlighted a little bit more now. One of the issues that I see is that we got complacent,” Jackson said.

Other parents reiterated their support for measures proposed by the East Lansing Educational Association (ELEA), the teacher’s union. One parent reread most of the suggestions put forward by the ELEA via email on Tuesday and at the most recent board of education meeting. He also expressed shock over some of the reports of insecure doors, lack of staff training surrounding active shooter situations as well as training in violent situations, bathroom security and a supposedly sour relationship between administration and police.

“I feel like I am choosing between his safety and education,” the parent said.

Some parents said they felt more caution should be used moving forward, imploring the attendees to consider more than just punishments.

“We can’t suspend and expel these kids and leave them at home by themselves. We need to figure out where the violence is coming from and not just suspend, expel and forget about them,” a parent said.

Other frustrations and concerns put forward included the usage of restorative justice, supposed misuse of school security systems and lack of security personnel. A few parents suggested the return of a school resource officer. The school resource officer was removed from the district in the summer of 2020 following efforts by the district to take action after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.

Very few spoke about public safety, even though the topic was encouraged by the moderator. The few speakers who did choose to talk about public safety mostly focused on school-related issues that could be solved by the city, especially crosswalks leading to and from the elementary and middle schools.

Some other suggestions were put forward by students and parents, which included ID scanners, metal detectors, training for active shooters, clear backpacks and overall filling any areas that they felt were not being addressed.

The meeting went half an hour over time, ending around 7:30 p.m. Andrews closed the meeting following the suggestions portion, thanking the crowd for their input and along with the mayor assuring that they would consider all of them carefully.

“It does take a village y’all, not just to raise children but to raise a community,” Andrews said. “And it takes a village to keep a community safe. We need to utilize all of our resources to keep our community safe.”