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Michigan high school student files civil rights complaint against math teacher

A civil rights complaint in Michigan has accused a math teacher of creating a racially hostile environment by displaying black students’ poor grades to the class and calling them criminals.

Mother Charmelle Kelsey filed the complaint on Monday with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights on behalf of her daughter Makayla, a rising junior at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor.

The complaint was filed in conjunction with a 14-page letter composed by the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School, which details the allegations of Makayla and several other named and unnamed students.

A school spokesman said in a statement: ‘In the Ann Arbor Public Schools, we stand strongly against any and all acts of racism, bigotry and bias. We will not comment publicly on personnel processes or pending litigation.’ 

‘It’s hard when she comes home and says that she’s been stalked, and harassed and bullied by teachers,’ Charmelle Kelsey said of her daughter to WXYZ-TV.

The bulk of the complaint focuses on Pioneer math teacher Michele Macke, who has been teaching at the school for more than 20 years.

The complaint states that Macke used coded racial language to refer to black students, calling them ‘criminals’ or ‘delinquents.’

‘You don’t listen in class, your teachers say you are failing,’ one black graduate says Macke told her in 2016. ‘[You are] a hooligan waiting to be a delinquent in life.’

The same former student, Ariel Yancey, claims that Macke once grabbed her arm as she was rushing to class, saying: ‘You’re not going to learn anything anyways because of how you look. You look terrible. You look unsuccessful. This is the attire of a criminal.’ 

Macke could not be immediately reached for a response to the claims. 

The complaint says that Macke also subjected Makayla to insults in front of her classmates.

‘Does your mom have a plan for your life? Does your mom work? What does she do for a living?’ the complaint claims Macke asked Makayla in front of the class in November 2019, after the then-sophomore had an extended absence due to an unspecified chronic health issue.

After Macke was called to a conference with Makayla’s mother and administrators to discuss the demeaning remarks, the math teacher retaliated the next day by asking if any of the students felt she was bullying them and shooting Makayla dirty looks, the complaint claims.

The complaint also claims that Macke would routinely display the grades of struggling students to the class, frequently singling out black students.

Makayla said that while she was absent for a doctor’s appointment in November 2019, she heard from a classmate that Macke had shown her grades to the class and told the other students she was failing because of frequent absences.

‘Though there may be a few white students who have experienced these violations, the students with whom we have spoken believe that Ms. Macke disproportionately targets Black students for grade shaming,’ the CRLI letter reads.

Elsewhere, the complaint focuses on the events surrounding several Black History Month presentations held by the high school’s Black Student Union in February of this year. 

Macke allegedly told her classes that the Black History assemblies were ‘a waste of time,’ not ‘diverse enough,’ and that she wished they had focused more on white people who made contributions to black communities.

The complaint states that Macke and some other teachers did not attend the first assembly, and then attended a second assembly but were guilty of ‘not engaging’ with the presentation.

‘The students also say that Pioneer never publicly addressed the fact that Michele Macke and an entire group of teachers intentionally did not bring their classes to these assemblies meant to celebrate Blackness,’ the letter states.

The complaint also details several instances where Macke allegedly grabbed black students by their arms.

In one December 2019 incident, Makayla says that Macke refused to give her a study guide she needed after missing classes, and that Macke grabbed the student’s arm when she tried to pick up the study guide off of the teacher’s desk.

Macke was placed on leave following the incident, and a police investigation did not find evidence to support a criminal charge, according to the complaint.

In February, the school’s Black Student Union created an online petition calling for Macke to be fired, which garnered more than 500 signatures, but did not result in the math teacher’s termination.

The new complaint lists three demands: that Macke be fired, that an external civil rights organization be called in to investigate Pioneer High, and that a racial discrimination complaint system be created to allow students to file grievances. 

State records show that Pioneer High School has an enrollment of 1,820 students, of whom 53 percent are white, 15 percent are black, 15 percent are Asian and 7 percent are Hispanic. 

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