WEST BRANCH, Mich. – Members of the West Branch-Rose City school board had a difficult decision to make Monday, and they sided with the district’s employees over students, parents and taxpayers.
The bottom line is that the school board will not fire six teachers who recently wrote to the local court seeking leniency for a colleague who was convicted of sexually molesting a student.
Hundreds of parents and concerned citizens filed into the Ogemaw Heights High School auditorium to learn the fate of the six teachers who wrote in support for Neal Erickson, a local middle school teacher who admitted to molesting a male teenage student over several years.
A seventh teacher also wrote a letter in support of the convict, but that person has retired from the school district.
Erickson was sentenced to 15-30 years in prison last month, but the teachers who pleaded for a reduced sentence on his behalf – as well as a board member who sat with Erickson’s family in court – put themselves at the center of a public firestorm with their appalling behavior.
The parents of the victim, John and Lori Janczewski, mounted a public campaign calling for the teachers’ termination and the vast majority of the community rallied behind them in support. The Facebook page “Support the Janczewskis” quickly swelled to thousands, and their cause gained national media attention. The group is also working to recall Mike Eagan, the board member who sat with the Ericksons, from office.
Thursday night, dozens of the Janczewskis’ supporters greeted attendees at the high school with signs reading “Anyone who stands behind a child molester shouldn’t stand in front of a classroom” and “Support the children, not the offender.” Others carried signs to “Recall Mike Eagan,” and distributed surveys to gauge interest in opening a local branch of the Charlton Heston Academy charter school.
Inside, dozens of parents and students wore blue t-shirts bearing the message “When We Stand Together” across the front.
After hours of emotional public testimony, and a two-hour closed session meeting, the dwindling crowd was nearly silent as school board president Jack Money read a prepared statement announcing a decision around 11:30 p.m.:
“As a board, we have examined all sides of this issue and there are no easy answers. We believe the letters written by the teachers may be protected under First Amendment rights, and that any disciplinary action will subject us to expensive, potentially lengthy lawsuits.
“Our students are our foremost concern, and the board is not willing to mortgage the future education of the students of this district by becoming embroiled in a First Amendment lawsuit. We empathize with the concerns expressed over the last couple of months and we absolutely do not minimize any expressed concerns in any manner.
“After taking those concerns expressed into consideration, we are directing the superintendent to do the following: the district will institute ethics training for the entire West Branch-Rose City staff. We direct the superintendent to research and find the appropriate training to be administered in the 2013-14 school year.
“To the best of our ability we will accommodate the requests of parents to not have their children in mandatory classes.”
The board voted 4-2 to accept the statement. Board member Mike Eagan abstained from the vote, citing a conflict of interest. Eagan’s wife, a teacher in the district, was among the letter writers.
Board President Money also read a letter submitted by the teachers in question:
“Dear community, criminal sexual conduct is a serious crime we do not condone. The safety of our students is our foremost concern. Our letters were never intended to cause any harm. We know the young man’s family is suffering, and empathize with their pain. It is our sincerest hope that the community will move forward for the sake of the students.”
“I hope you’re happy, because nobody else is,” one man yelled as most of those remaining in attendance quietly shuffled out of the auditorium.
Neither the teachers nor Eagan have publicly apologized to the Janczewskis or the community.
Lori Janczewski said she wasn’t surprised by the board’s decision.
“We’re disappointed. We expected it, but we’re not done,” she said.
Throughout the meeting a steady parade of parents and other concerned citizens stepped up to the podium to express their outrage at the teachers’ and Eagan’s actions.
Rose City resident Kimberly Ludlow spoke of how the situation has encouraged parents to find better education alternatives for their children at a nearby charter school, and pleaded with officials to fire the letter-writing teachers to prevent more parents from leaving the district. Numerous parents vowed at a previous board meeting to pull their students from WB-RC schools if the teachers weren’t terminated, taking hundreds of thousands in state per-pupil funding with them.
“We’ve already lost 35 students to Charlton Heston and there are 25 on the waiting list,” Ludlow said. “It’s been brought to our attention Charlton Heston could open a branch in Rose City … needing only 100 students.”
She also wondered out loud how the board’s decision will impact past and future victims of child molestation in the 2,400-student district.
“We don’t know if any children have been hurt” in more recent years, she said. “What child is going to be willing to speak to any of the teachers who wrote these letters? How do we know they won’t protect one of their other people?”
Candy Cottle of Rose City explained why she believed teachers deserved to be terminated, and why their freedom of speech shouldn’t excuse their actions.
“The major difference in freedom of speech and what these teachers did was they put their title below their name” when they signed their letters to the court, she said. “Freedom of speech is null and void in my opinion when they do that.”
Several speakers shared emotional stories of their own experiences as victims of sexual abuse. Many who took the podium also said they would find another place to educate their children if the board didn’t fire the teachers.
A handful of other speakers, approximately 10 percent of those who spoke, didn’t want the teachers fired. They said there are more in the community who feel the same way, but fear they will be ostracized if they speak up.
“I feel like it’s becoming a witch hunt,” said one man who didn’t clearly identify himself. “People are afraid to lose business at their businesses.”
The most powerful testimony, however, came from the relatives of the victim.
Lori Janczewski’s cousin Amy Sporman, who is also a teacher in another district, spoke about the ethics involved with being an educator and the very real trauma Erickson’s misdeeds caused.
“The fact that these teachers had the audacity to write (that the victim) wasn’t affected … my cousin lived the hell that Neal Erickson created so how does someone say he wasn’t affected,” Sporman said.
“The fact that these people went as far as to write a letter with the district’s letterhead … is professional suicide and any teacher with any sense knows that,” she continued. “What scares me the most about keeping the teachers on (the job) is they don’t realize all the good guy stuff he did, the camps, the volunteering … he was a predator.
“I just don’t understand how a professional educator … can’t realize he duped us all,” Sporman said. “How can we trust people who don’t realize he’s a walking predator?
At the end of the day, any teacher in a public school is a supporter of a public school and it boils down to ethics. They’ve broke the public’s trust and it can’t be repaired.”
Stephanie Janczewski, the victim’s sister and a high school student in WB-RC schools, wanted the board to know her brother wasn’t the only one affected by the abuse Erickson inflicted. The teacher’s actions made the family’s life a living hell – pitting her brother against her parents for years – and the seven teachers’ letters only added insult to injury, she said.
“I’m deathly scared to come back this year. Even though I believe I’m a strong person, this is scary,” she said. “My childhood was terrible living with my brother. I thought brother and sister are supposed to be close and have a tight friendship.
“I never had a brother, Mr. Erickson destroyed my brother. It breaks my heart to see my brother go through this. It kills me,” she said. “I have all these people in here who support us, but you guys need to do something.”
John Janczewski said that despite the ruling he’s making progress.
He resubmitted petition language to recall Eagan this week with the help of an attorney after his first attempt was rejected by election officials
More importantly, though, he said his family is beginning to heal. His son is currently out of state on an internship, but he said he speaks with him often and his son is in full support of his family’s efforts.
“He’s tired. You can tell he wants it to be over and to get back to a regular life, but he supports us … so this doesn’t happen again,” Janczewski said.
“He feels good inside he can come and talk to his dad,” he said. “That’s a bond we had lost for over nine years.”