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East Lansing holds school and public safety listening session following tense week

A crowd fills into the Hannah Community Center Auditorium Friday night.
Arjun Thakkar
A crowd fills into the Hannah Community Center Auditorium Friday night.

Officials in East Lansing hosted a listening session Friday to hear community members’ perspectives on school and public safety issues.

The city set up the event following a week of tension at East Lansing High School. Students experienced two shelter-in-place orders this week as well as a walkouton Thursday. Parents have been concerned about incidents of violence at the school, with some calling for administrators to resign for their handling of the situation.

The event was originally slotted to be held in the banquet room at the Hannah Community Center. But an overflowing crowd of concerned residents, parents and students forced officials to move Friday’s listening session to its auditorium.

Mayor Ron Bacon said the city organized the event to reduce tensions and provide a forum for developing solutions. He was excited to see the large attendance.

Mayor Ron Bacon and professor Dorinda Carter Andrews stand on a stage to address the crowd.
Arjun Thakkar
Mayor Ron Bacon and professor Dorinda Carter Andrews address the crowd at the safety listening session.

"When I look out over this sea of friends and community, it's a good acknowledgement of how serious we take our children," he said. "To be successful today, we have to work under the assumption that everyone in this room wants our kids to be safe, wants to have a safe learning environment."

Bacon and Councilmember Noel Garcia Jr. circled around the auditorium to pass out microphones.

Many attendees said the incidents have damaged the learning environment for students. One parent said he doesn't feel safe sending his son to school and he feels that he is "choosing between his safety and his education."

Dozens of attendees shared a wide array of opinions for improving safety in the community. But multiple comments centered around wanting to see more security on campus.

Rufus Jackson is an assistant football coach at East Lansing. He said the school has gotten complacent and having more security guards would make students think before they act.

“You need to hire someone to man the cameras, someone to walk the hallways in between classes, and create a presence,” Jackson said.

Officials made a concerted effort to give students who showed up a chance to speak. They proposed a variety of measures to improve safety, including more targeted mental health resources and training for teachers and parents.

Several said they don't feel comfortable using the restrooms on campus because they find other students using drugs there. They proposed having school staff monitor the bathrooms to prevent students from smoking there.

Attendees also asked for stronger accountability measures for those who violate school policy. One student suggested having students go to in-school suspension and receive greater attention from staff instead of just suspending them and sending them out of the school.

Others proposed limiting student access to cell phones and installing metal detectors in the building.

Parents and students also pushed back on blaming "school of choice" students—those who live in a neighboring community but attend school at East Lansing High—for the incidents.

David Ferguson stands up and speaks into a microphone to the attendees.
Arjun Thakkar
David Ferguson asks for administrators to be more responsive to the safety concerns.

David Ferguson is a parent of an East Lansing High student. He said putting blame on families for wanting their kids to go to school in the community is "absolutely ridiculous."

Ferguson said he's frustrated with school administrators and that they need to do a better job at addressing the violence.

"(If) this is the school board’s problem, then I guess we need to address that though," Ferguson said. "Because I'm not going to move out of the school district just because we got inadequate leadership, if that’s what it is.”

Dorinda Carter Andrews, a professor and chairperson of Michigan State University's Department of Teacher Education, moderated the discussions. She encouraged everyone to look at the issue with a community lens rather than an individual focus on certain students.

"f you can't see somebody else's baby as your baby, then you're not community focused," Carter Andrews said. "Then it wouldn't be 'those kids,' it would be 'our kids.'"

The city collected note cards from attendees to gather their questions and perspectives. Bacon says he expects city and school officials to act with urgency on enhancing safety in the community.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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