WEST BRANCH, Mich. – Last month, former Rose City, Michigan middle school teacher Neal Erickson was sentenced to 15-30 years in prison for molesting one of his students over the course of several years.
But several teachers who wrote letters of support for their pedophile colleague – as well as a West Branch-Rose City school board member who has publicly supported Erickson’s family – are now at the center of a public firestorm.
WB-RC school officials held a special board meeting July 29 at the Ogemaw Heights School auditorium where numerous people from the community approached the podium to urge the school board to fire seven teachers who wrote the court in support of Erickson.
They also called for the resignation of board member Michael Eagan, who sat with teachers and the Erickson family during the former teacher’s sentencing last month, the Ogemaw County Herald reports.
Many parents who spoke at the meeting threatened to remove their children from the district if teachers who supported Erickson are not fired, which could result in significant loss of per-pupil state funding.
On the other hand, district officials are attempting to determine if such terminations would violate teachers’ constitutional right to free speech. The firings could trigger lawsuits against the district for wrongful termination that likely would cost a minimum of $500,000 in legal fees to defend, the newspaper reports.
“It’s a huge decision, whichever road we go down,” WB-RC board president Jack Money said at the meeting. “Don’t underestimate how huge it is.”
If the district loses any potential civil lawsuits, the cost “could potentially run well over a million dollars and bring the district to its financial knees,” Superintendent Dan Cwayna said at the special meeting.
“One of the things that concerns me as a board member is the cost of litigation,” board member Dick Bachelder told community members at the meeting. “The board’s going to have to make some decisions with regard to the teachers and we also have to know the loss of students.”
“I suspect if the teachers are terminated, they are going to sue us,” he said, according to the Herald. “That’s money we don’t have.”
Eagan told the audience he would not willingly resign, despite repeated requests from the community.
“ … (T)he community elected me, and there’s a process to remove me,” he said.
The school board is expected to render its decision on the fate of the teachers who supported Erickson at its August 19 board meeting.
Erickson came under investigation last October after allegations surfaced that he engaged in sexual conduct with a male student in his early teens between August 2006 and August 2009. A state police investigation substantiated the allegations and Erickson was charged with criminal sexual conduct in December 2012, the Ogemaw Herald reports.
Erickson eventually admitted to the crimes and pleaded for leniency during his sentencing, stressing the struggles his family has endured since he was charged and the financial hardship they’ve faced.
The victim’s parents, John and Lori Janczewski, also spoke at Erickson’s sentencing about how the experience has torn their family apart.
“We couldn’t figure out why (the victim) hated us,” Lori said, according to the Herald. “He went after his father. There were physical fights.
“Our daughter lost her only brother. He wasn’t there for her. He wouldn’t talk to her,” she continued. “You were his teacher. You were his mentor. You were his friend. And you violated him.”
The Janczewskis were also outraged by the actions of several school employees and one board member who showed support for Erickson during his sentencing. The group sat with the Erickson family throughout the court hearing, and several teachers submitted letters to the court calling for a minimum sentence.
“Neal made a mistake,” teacher Sally Campbell wrote, according to the newspaper. “He allowed a mutual friendship to develop into much more. He realized his mistake and ended it years before someone anonymously sent something to the authorities which began this legal process.”
“I am asking that Neal be given the absolute minimum sentence, considering all the circumstances surrounding this case,” teacher Amy Huber Eagan wrote to the court. “I am also hoping that he can stay remanded to custody in the Ogemaw County Jail and not be sent to a prison facility.”
“Neal has plead (sic) guilty for his one criminal offense but he is not a predator,” teacher Harriett Coe wrote. “This was an isolated incident. He understands the severity of his action and is sincere in his desire to make amends.”
Those who wrote in to the court on behalf of Erickson included Campbell, Eagan, Coe, Marilyn Glover, Sandi Lee, Kathryn Weber, Kathleen Sheel and Kathleen Palmer, the Herald reports. Most of them are instructors in the school district, but EAGnews could not determine exactly who they are.
“We’re sick to our stomach,” John Janczewski told the newspaper. “Heartbroken. My wife is a (paraprofessional) at Rose City. She worked with all these teachers. She felt backstabbed. We were sick to our stomachs to see them (at the sentencing).”
Apparently, so was Judge Michael Bumgartner, who sentenced Erickson.
“I’m appalled and ashamed that the community would rally around, in this case, you,” Bumgartner said. “What you did was a jab in the eye with a sharp stick to every parent who trusts a teacher.”
The public display of support for Erickson quickly boiled over into community outrage, and it convinced the Janczewskis to pursue the termination of the teachers and board member involved.
“None of it’s right,” John Janczewski said. “None of them should have been there. They should have been in the middle (of the courtroom) or showed some support (to the victim’s family.) There is only one person that’s a victim and that’s my son. What kind of message do we send to the community, to the parents and students, by them being there and supporting this?”
“We will not stop until the end,” he said after the sentencing. “We will not give up on this. We will not stop.”
The family and the victim’s supporters in the community established a “Support the Janczewski Family” Facebook page, with a petition calling for the teachers who spoke on behalf of Erickson to be fired and urging Eagan to step down.
Because Eagen has refused, they’re working to recall him from his post.
The anger in the community might have led to an act of arson.
Police believe someone set the Janczewskis’ garage on fire July 20, and nearly set their home ablaze.
On the side of his house the perpetrator spray-painted “YWP-ITY,” presumably a crude acronym for “You will pay, I told you.” State police are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
“We don’t deserve this,” John Janczewski told the Herald. “We’re not a bad family. We’ve done nothing but stand up for our son, the victim. They could have killed my whole family. Whoever’s done this has no remorse. They have no soul.”
Janczewski told the newspaper the arson only hardened his resolve to ensure those who supported Erickson are held accountable.
Since the arson, the “Support the Janczewski Family” Facebook page has swelled to more than 2,100 members. The Herald took an online poll of the community over the terminations, and the majority want district officials to fire the teachers involved and deal with any potential lawsuits.
“I have two children in the district. If the teachers are not terminated, my children will not be attending Rose City School,” parent Claire Myers wrote on the Herald website. “Their actions speak louder than words by supporting Neal (Erickson.)”
Sam Cottle, a local resident with relatives who work in the school district, told EAGnews most people in the community are disgusted by the teachers’ support for Erickson.
“It’s absolutely appalling, these … teachers who wrote the letters. How someone can support a child molester … I don’t understand,” Cottle said. “None of these people have written a letter of support for the mom, dad, or son. What does that tell you?
“The (National Education Association) and the teachers union will support (the teachers who wrote in to the court for Erickson),” he said. “I don’t see how it won’t turn into a big battle.”