For an hour on Tuesday, Farmington Public Schools trustees listened to public comment stemming from an inappropriate comment made in late September by a Harrison High School administrator.
Long-time assistant principal Angela Leach has reportedly admitted to, and apologized for, a comment she made during a dance routine by the school’s cheerleading squad. The dance ended with the girls throwing dollar bills in the air to a song that ends with the lyric, “I think we’re getting too much money.”
Leach’s comment that the girls looked like “strippers” resulted in a backlash from students and parents, some of whom attended the October 16 board meeting. Most shared concerns about more than than the cheerleaders.
Diane Cannon pointed to other racial incidents that received media attention during the past 18 months, including racist images shared by members of the Farmington High baseball team and an African-American student who was pulled out of his seat when he did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“There are many smaller incidents that happen on a daily basis,” she said.
Jackie Boltwan, whose daughter is a 2002 Harrison graduate, said there were racial problems in the district in the late 1990s and “not a lot has changed.”
“Until we trust each other and build a culture of trust, not a lot is going to happen,” she said. “If we trust one another… whatever we came up with to decide what punishment should be meted out to this particular person, that would be acceptable. How do we go from where we are now? What are the first moves? I don’t know what the answer is to those questions.”
Mable Fox said the issue with the cheerleaders is “simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“Just because a particular staff member has treated you well doesn’t mean that person has treated others well,” she said. “I respectfully love this community, and I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve worked with some very bright spots in these schools. I’ve also worked with some dark ones.”
Fox said a candid discussion about biases must happen “before we are able to trust, and grow, and heal.”
Inappropriate remark ‘shouldn’t ruin a career’
Also present were those who supported Leach and the district’s administration. Roxanne Fitzpatrick, a Farmington Hills resident whose children attended Harrison, encouraged officials to move on from the incident and bring Leach back to the school.
“How did we get from one comment with an apology to the fact that she’s racist and is bullying?” she said. “What is the goal of this group of people?”
Heidi Schmidt said she loves Harrison’s diversity. Her son, a senior, has worked with Leach and the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, which pairs upperclassmen with younger “at risk” students in a mentoring relationship. Leach is the faculty sponsor for the group.
“Saying one wrong thing at the wrong time shouldn’t ruin a career,” she said.
Susan Cobb, who with her husband, Dean, directs the Harrison theater program, said she is “personally not seeing a racial issue in the children that we deal with. We just have wonderful kids at Harrison.”
Cobb said the incident has “made the school sad. It’s made their days sad, and no one has the full story… It’s impacting students at Harrison High School. It’s impacting students at every high school in the district.”
‘We have more in common than we have differences’
Parent Kelli Carpenter-Crawford urged the board to not move quickly past the incident.
“Everyone of us cares deeply about educating students at Farmington Public Schools,” she said. “In order to move through this present tension, we have got to spend time here and listen to each other… Show up, lean in, attend something new. Don’t pull back, lean into the conversation.”
Trustee Terry Johnson praised the respectful manner in which people shared their concerns.
“This community can and will come together,” he said. “We’ve shown it again and again. This is an unfortunate incident… I’m not trying to downplay it, because we have a section of our community that doesn’t feel like they’re part of the community, and that needs to be addressed.”
Trustee Terri Weems, who was elected board president later in the meeting, said she “heard a lot of the same things from a lot of different people.”
“We have more in common than we have differences,” she said. “What I heard from nearly everyone was a desire to work together.”
Watch a recording of the October 16 meeting at https://tv10.viebit.com/player.php?hash=DnfYTfNwKVXC. Public comment starts at around the 16-minute mark.