ROSE CITY, Mich. – August 19 is the crucial day.
At 7 p.m. in the Ogemaw Heights High School auditorium, the Rose City community will learn the fate of seven West Branch-Rose City teachers who recently wrote letters in support of a colleague convicted of molesting a young student.
John and Lori Janczewski, the victim’s parents, want the teachers fired. They also want school board member Michael Eagan – who sat with the family of convicted child molester Neal Erickson during his sentencing – recalled from office.
“We had been quiet … and sat back and said nothing,” John Janczewski said of the investigation and arrest of their son’s teacher in an interview with EAGnews. “But when (the letters of support from teachers) came out in court we were angry and sick to our stomachs.
“We can’t believe (educators) who took an oath to protect and be there for the child would turn a blind eye,” he said. “We promised ourselves we’re not going to stop until the (teachers who supported Erickson) are fired and this board member is recalled.”
On July 29, the WB-RC school board held a special meeting at the Ogemaw Heights High School auditorium where a steady stream of concerned parents and local residents made their way to the podium and urged school officials to terminate the seven teachers who supported Erickson.
School leaders are attempting to determine if the terminations would violate the teachers’ constitutional right to free speech, which could trigger lawsuits that would undoubtedly cost far more than the district can afford.
Meanwhile, hundreds of parents who are rallying behind the Janczewskis are threatening to pull their children from the district if the school board doesn’t act, a serious concern because of the potential loss of per-pupil state funding.
“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.”
The Janczewskis have been through a lot over the past year.
In October 2012, Lori Janczewski was diagnosed with cancer. Days later they received more heartbreaking news.
“Four days after my wife was diagnosed, a state trooper came out to our house and we found out our son was molested,” said Janczewski, who is also fighting his own battle with Multiple Sclerosis. “Somebody sent an anonymous email with pictures of my son to the board of education and the superintendent.”
The email and pictures proved Erickson “was a predator and he groomed our son to molest him,” he said.
Someone also posted the pictures online.
“They never found out who sent the emails and brought it to the surface,” Janczewski said. “On the one hand, we’re very appreciative … but on the other hand, we’re angry. Why didn’t they come forward sooner? Why did they put the pictures on a porn site?”
Yet despite the horrible news, the family finally had an explanation for their son’s troublesome behavior.
Their son had grown increasingly distant from the once close-knit family through his early teens, as Erickson, his middle school math teacher, manipulated the young boy into a twisted relationship that lasted from Aug. 2006 to Aug. 2009. The victim frequently lashed out at his father and the tension tore their family apart.
Lori Janczewski worked with Erickson at Rose City Middle School and had asked him for insight into the boy’s rage, but he shrugged her off. The discovery that Erickson had molested their son brought a new sense of clarity after years of turmoil and anguish, John said.
“He carried this inside him all these years,” Janczewski said of his son’s suffering. “It not only impacted us recently, it has impacted us for about nine years now.
“Our son shut me out of his life. There were heated battles between us. It just got worse and worse and worse. It was total hell. It caused physical and mental stress on our whole family,” John said. “I chalked it up to puberty, but it was horrible. We couldn’t put our finger on what was wrong, but now we know.”
“Now we understand why he was so angry and emotional,” Janczewski said.
Despite the disturbing revelations, the Janczewskis were content to let the legal process take its course. They kept a low profile and followed Erickson’s criminal case closely. Erickson admitted to his misdeeds, and the couple attended his sentencing July 10.
Teachers take sides
That’s when they learned for the first time that numerous teachers in the school district wrote to the court to plead for a lenient sentence for their colleague. They were shocked to see several teachers – and school board member Mike Eagan – sitting across the courtroom with the sex offender’s family.
“Neal made a mistake,” teacher Sally Campbell wrote to the judge, according to the Ogemaw County Herald. “He allowed a mutual friendship to develop into much more. He realized his mistake and ended it years before someone anonymously sent something in 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,” wrote Amy Huber Eagan, a teacher and wife of board member Mike Eagan. “I am also hoping that he can stay remanded to the custody of the Ogemaw County Jail and not be sent to a prison facility.”
“Neal has pled (sic) guilty for his one criminal offense but he is not a predator,” teacher Harriett Coe wrote, according to the Herald. “This was an isolated incident. He understands the severity of his action and is sincere in his desire to make amends. He has been candid and conveyed his action to his family, friends and co-workers.”
In all, 10 people, including seven WB-RC teachers, submitted letters of support for Erickson, most pleading for a reduced sentence. They included Campbell, Amy Eagan, Coe, Toni Erickson, Carol Rau, Marilyn Glover, Sandi Lee, Kathryn Weber, Kathleen Sheel and Kathleen Palmer, the Herald reports.
Judge Michael Bumgartner told Erickson he was “appalled and ashamed that the community could rally around, in this case, you,” according to the Herald.
“What you did was a jab in the eye with a sharp stick to every parent who trusts a teacher,” he said shortly before sentencing Erickson to 15-30 years in prison.
The Janczewskis felt betrayed, hurt, and angry.
Now they have made it their mission to ensure those who supported Erickson no longer work with the community’s children. They have vowed to recall Eagan from the school board if he didn’t willingly step down.
“They are all sick in the head,” Janczewski said of Erickson’s supporters. “They can do their freedom of speech, but their actions” have consequences, he said.
Until Erickson’s sentencing, the family members were “very private people,” Janczewski said. But the teacher support letters convinced them the problem was much larger than Erickson.
They shed their anonymity to demand the teachers and Eagan are held accountable, and the vast majority of the community rallied around them in support.
But obviously someone does not support the Janczewskis.
Days after the sentencing, the family awoke to a fire in their garage that nearly spread to their house. Someone had also scrawled the letters “ITY-YWP” on the side of their home, presumably a crude acronym for “I told you, you will pay.”
State police have offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, and have several leads, Janczewski said, but haven’t definitively linked the crime to the Erickson case.
“I just can’t wait till they catch the person,” Janczewski said. “They could have killed my family.”
Some of the teachers who supported Erickson have heckled Lori Janczewski at work, according to her husband. The couple reported two teachers to the police, but the abuse has already taken its toll on her physical and mental health, Janczewski said.
“My wife is going to have a breakdown … she’s so close,” he said. “The school has just torn her apart.”
The local community has rushed to the Janczewskis’ side. Media coverage of the unbelievable situation has also spread, and families in other states are joining their cause, as well.
The Facebook group “Support the Janczewski Family” has swelled to more than 2,100 members in recent weeks. At the special July 29 school board meeting about 300 local residents flooded the school auditorium and spoke out against the offending teachers’ behavior. They urged Eagan to resign, but he refused.
“They want justice. They feel like things have been swept under the rug,” Janczewski said. “The community has had enough, we’re up in arms.”
Janczewski said he hopes to carry the public anger over to the 2014 election, and has submitted recall petition language to remove Eagan from office. The first draft was rejected by election officials, but with the help of an attorney Janczewski said he expects to have an approved petition by the end of the week, and foresees no problem collecting the necessary signatures to get the proposal on the ballot.
“We need 2,058 signatures and that is not a problem at all,” he said. “I have support from every possible angle you can imagine, all types of local businesses, people are rallying behind us.
“They just can’t wait to sign this recall.”
He said the community’s support has been far stronger than he imagined.
“We’re no longer private individuals, we’ve become part of the community and it feels great,” Janczewski said. “They’ve helped us up when we’re down.
“We’re both physically and mentally done,” he said of his wife and himself. “But we have the power to press forward because of the support of the community.”
Ultimately, Janczewski said, the family wants the seven teachers who publicly supported Erickson terminated immediately, Eagan to step down or be recalled from office, and action by the school district to help prevent other students from suffering abuse.
The family hopes to pressure school officials to enact bi-yearly teacher training sessions on child abuse, “so students can trust their teachers again,” Janczewski said.
“We have a lot of goals … and my wife and I promised ourselves we would not stop until they are in place,” he said. “We don’t care how much more there is (to go through), we won’t stop until we know the children are safe.”
While the community works to rebuild trust with the district, the Janczewskis have been rebuilding, as well.
Their son has moved to another state as part of an internship and is working to regain a sense of normalcy in the wake of the devastating experience. He supports his family’s efforts, but prefers to keep his distance from the publicity, Janczewski said.
“He seems to be happier, a lot more open. He’s not angry 100 percent of the time,” Janczewski said. “He’s OK with what we’re doing, but he just doesn’t want his name out there.
“My son and I have opened up a new chapter of a new book. I’ve talked to him more in the last two months than I have in the past nine years,” Janczewski said. “I lost over eight years, the best years of his life I lost, because of … that sick monster.”