Harrison High parent Doreen Griffin’s daughter, Michaela, came home from school on September 24 depressed and sad.
The 11th grade cheerleader’s mother told Farmington Public Schools officials Tuesday that when she asked what was wrong, Michaela said, “Mom, they called us strippers.”
School officials have been dealing for more than a week with fallout from a comment made by long-time Harrison administrator Angela Leach during a pep rally in the school gymnasium. Leach has acknowledged and apologized for saying words to the effect that the girls looked like strippers. She is not working with students.
“It hurts. I was speechless at first,” Dorrine Griffin said. “I told my daughter, okay calm down… She could not have meant it that way.”
Griffin said incidents shared by her daughter and other cheerleaders made her believe there was more to the story. Michaela also told her that other teachers agreed with Leach’s comments. If the dance was inappropriate, she said, the comment should have been shared privately with the cheer coach.
“I hope you make a good decision that shows my daughter that when an adult also makes a mistake, there are consequences that mean something,” Griffin said.
Harrison cheerleader Jade Forest, who has posted about the incident on social media, said she doesn’t have a “vendetta” against Leach. She said she has been called from class to Leach’s office because of the clothing she wears, while similarly dressed caucasian students don’t suffer the same consequences. She plans to become a surgeon and said missing class time affects her education.
Forest said she has had to defend herself and her teammates on social media over derogatory comments made by other students. She was clearly not satisfied with the actions taken to date, which have included meetings between cheerleaders, parents, and administrators, and a written apology.
“I am upset,” she said. “These sorry apologies sent out is not what I want. There needs to be a consequence taken.”
Several people spoke on Leach’s behalf during the Tuesday meeting, including members of the committee hosting activities for school’s final year. They pointed out her dedication to students and described her as respectful and professional.
Roxanne Fitzpatrick said Leach has been devoted to making the school’s last year its best ever. She tearfully described Leach’s dedication and hard work, from building a parade float to serving hotdogs to the football team.
“I saw nothing (from students) but high fives, way to go Mrs. Leach,” Fitzpatrick said. “That doesn’t sound like someone who doesn’t care about those students… She absolutely bleeds green and gold, and I think you should give her a chance.”
Restorative practice facilitator MaryBeth Sikora urged board members to “listen to our students, listen to our parents. We have had a number of challenges in our community… Great changes are needed.”
Trustees did not specifically comment on the incident, which is under investigation. Board vice president Terry Johnson said Leach deserved “due process.” He suggested bringing in someone from outside the district to take a look at the issues.
“I’m hearing there’s a lack of trust,” he said. “This is something that’s weighing heavy on me. We’re not going to fix this issue if we keep doing the same thing, and especially if you folks don’t have trust in us.”
Board secretary Angie Smith recalled a 2017 incident in which some members of the Farmington High baseball team made negative, racist comments about African American women in a private social media group.
“I want to applaud these girls for standing strong and not being broken,” she said of the cheerleaders. “We have had enough of this. These are not hidden and isolated situations. This has got to stop.”
Trustee David Turner said he deals with the same issues in his position as Vice President of Human Resources at Eastern Michigan University. He’s concerned about the impact on students, even those not on the cheer team.
“So what do we do? Do we decide how we fight? Or do we decide how we heal?” he said. “It takes some time, because it hurts… You gotta take time to deal with this pain. This is step one of a lot of steps.”