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East Lansing Public Library criticized for racially profiling Black teen

Stelisha Foreman's 16-year-old son was falsely accused by East Lansing Public Library administrators for having been involved in an October 2022 incident where a fire was started in the men's restroom. Foreman spoke to the library's board on Jan. 18, telling members of the harm the incident has caused her family.
Melorie Begay
Stelisha Foreman's 16-year-old son was falsely accused by East Lansing Public Library administrators for having been involved in an October 2022 incident where a fire was started in the men's restroom. Foreman spoke to the library's board on Jan. 18, telling members of the harm the incident has caused her family.

Library patrons and parents in East Lansing voiced outrage at a Wednesday library board meeting over administrators' recent decision to call the police on a Black teenager.

On Jan. 11, a 16-year-old Black teen and his 17-year-old brother were approached by the library’s director and assistant director. The boys were sitting in the teen section in the library with a group of friends after school.

Going off of a screenshot of surveillance footage, the younger child was falsely identified by a staff member as having been one of three individuals who had started a “fire” in the men’s bathroom in October.

Assistant Administrator Brice Bush told WKAR the teen was approached by herself and Library Director Kristen Shelley after being identified by a staff member upon entering the building.

According to reporting by theEast Lansing High School newspaper,Portrait, administrators told the 16-year-old he was on a no-entry list. The teen was then asked to leave the room so they could speak to him alone.

The older brother stepped in and refused to allow the administrators to leave the room alone with his brother. Both brothers denied the youngest’s involvement in the October incident.

Police were called by the library and officers later determined the teen was innocent. The boy’s mother, Stelisha Foreman, was also present that day and she said she was shown the same screenshot that was shown to officers that was used to falsely accuse her son. She too said the person was not her son.

Speaking during a public comment period at the library's board meeting Wednesday, Foreman said Shelley is unfit for the role as director and criticized her handling of the situation.

“This woman does not need to be the director of this library, she is a racist, she did not apologize to any of the children, she did not apologize to me and specifically did not apologize to my son, whom she falsely accused,” she said.

Because of board meeting rules, Foreman’s time was limited to two minutes, but she was given additional time after an East Lansing Info reporter told board members Foreman deserved more time given the severity of the situation.

With her additional time, Foreman stressed the harmfulness of the incident and pleaded with board members to take the incident seriously.

”I’m so proud of the way my children handled this situation. Because they’re Black, this could have went in an entirely different direction if they were upset and rowdy, or ready to fight, this could have not ended well for my family,” she said.

Others in the audience expressed their dismay and disappointment with the library for racially profiling the teen. They also noted the incident is not isolated and that the library is not always an inclusive and safe space for Black people.

In response to Foreman and public comment, board member Ameenah Asante said she was shocked and disappointed. She said she returned to East Lansing and joined the board without knowing the full extent of what occurred and has been occurring at the library.

“I left East Lansing for a reason, and it has always felt, in many, many ways, that it’s illegal to be Black in East Lansing,” Asante said. “To go all zero through 18 [at] East Lansing Public Schools and to have incident after incident of my fellow students and so many different types of injustices occur while in the city, this incident brings back so many layers of harm.”

Asante said she learned about the incident from her son who sent her an article from Portrait. She said her son messaged her that he’s glad it hasn't happened to him yet.

“For [Asante’s son] to be a dark skin Black boy with dreads who is so beautifully portrayed on the mural on the library out front and have this incident hit so close to home,” Asante said. She said it could have been her son who had the police called on him.

Asante said she doesn’t know what needs to be done but said it will take a lot of work to repair what’s occurred.

“The child and the kids that were present that day, they suffered harm, and they will never forget that day, they will never forget that day, the day the police were called on a child,” she said.

“It never leaves you to be wrongly accused of something you didn’t do, and they will reflect on that every single moment of their lives, to question, ‘Am I being viewed as a criminal? Is somebody looking at me as a criminal?’ And the short answer is yes, because they’re born Black.”

Asante told the board that whatever solutions come next need to be permanent.

Later in the meeting, Asante asked administrators, who were both present, why police were called when during a previous board meeting it was agreed that police would only be called if there were threats issued toward staff.

Shelley said no threats were given, rather she was following the terms of the exclusion letter, which considers entering the library trespassing once given an exclusion letter.

Shelley said library staff have taken nine months of diversity and equity training but more work needs to be done. She also stated both herself and the assistant director have apologized, but noted its insufficiency.

She then brought up a lack of funding and seeing an increased number of teens using the library.

“But the bottom line is we gotta figure out how to help the young people who come here after school. And we have to figure out so that they are in this space and make the space conducive for everybody else that wants to use the space, that we don’t have incidences that escalate, that we’re feeling that we have to give exclusion letters,” Shelley said.

Moving forward, Shelley said she would like more support from the community, the schools, and the city. She said staff are open to more diversity training and are open to suggestions from the community to address the incident.

Bush expressed remorse and said she’s been personally shaken by the incident and for being called a racist. But she too noted the increased number of teens has been challenging.

Board members said they would create a subcommittee to address the incident and to prevent it from happening again. Specifically, the subcommittee would look at the library’s code of conduct, the exclusion letter policy and any other changes.

Community input will also be welcomed and individuals are encouraged to email suggestions to the library.

Melorie Begay is WKAR-FM's weekend host and a general assignment reporter.
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