Protests at Michigan School for the Deaf

This morning there was a protest at the front of the Michigan School for the Deaf with about 15 people, a mix of students, parents, staff, and advocates, holding signs. Today is the last day of school.

The Daily Moth was able to do interviews with two student leaders and several parents.

The main concerns are what they feel is a lack of transparency from the interim principal, school officials, and the Michigan Department of Education on who will take over as a permanent principal, and what they feel is an oppressive environment.

The Campus Manager and interim principal, Charles Thomas, is a hearing person who students say only know very few basic signs.

The former principal, Natalie Grupido, who is a Deaf woman, left her position about two months ago, citing family reasons. So Thomas took over and there was an opening for the principal position with four applicants.

Two MSD student leaders, Jake and Lucas, told “The Daily Moth” that they and other students want a CODA teacher, Rex Vernon.

The students said they asked the interim principal Thomas two weeks ago to set up a meeting on Monday and that it was agreed upon, but that Thomas skipped the meeting.

The students ended up taping posters demanding a culturally and linguistically appropriate principal on school walls, but said they were quickly taken down.

Jake (MSD Student): I put up the posters and all to explain who we wanted as principal and why. All the posters were taken down within 5 minutes during lunch time. They were all taken down and I was taken aback. Where is our voice? Students should have the ability to have their own voices. What is going on?

Lucas (MSD Student): They took it down. So we decided to have a protest today. The protest is to make MSD recognize us and make them realize that MSD students, staff, and teachers are not ignorant nor dumb. They have to recognize us.

Alex: Here are comments from two parents.

Sarah Houston (Parent): We started a parents group because we are not happy with the way the education system is going on at MSD. One of the most important things to me is that they abide by the language policy. It is very unfortunate that they have appointed a campus manager who has zero signing skills. Zero knowledge or understanding of Deaf people or culture. Therefore there is no way for our children to access them. Also they have a language policy that they are not following — they are supposed to be signing all the time in school but they are not. Hearing people use their voices with each other and leave our children out in the dark. The final straw, today, what made us decide to come out and protest, is because they oppressed our children. They put up posters saying they wanted a culturally and linguistically appropriate person to become a principal, and they had a right to do that, and the posters were nice and very cordial and respectful. They were taken down and this is oppression. Enough is enough. I’ve had it. The time for change is now. Thank you for taking the time to listen to us. We must improve the equation for deaf children across the state of Michigan. We can’t delay, the time is now.

Rosemary Langevin (Parent): My primary concerns are firstly that Deaf employees at MSD have been pushed aside, so resources have been pulled out from the Deaf community. And I can imagine that resources are not being appropriately given out to Deaf children with hearing parents. So we have been in touch with the Campus Manager, Charles Thomas and the Michigan Special Education department, both of them, since April. I’ve reached out four times. That’s just for me personally but there have been many other parents and students who have been trying to reach out, but they have avoided us and did not answer our concerns. That is my primary concern. My second concern his that many staff at MSD have been relocating. They have moved to Indianapolis, or Texas (Austin), or Riverside, because they have good schools. Not just that, teachers and staff have started to leave. That means MSD is not doing good. This is because the MDE and OSE is letting people go and people are scared. I understand why, but it is hurting our children who are still MSD students. Those are our concerns.

Heather (Golob Stubby): Our biggest concerns is where is the communication and transparency between the MDE and MSD? Both have two different sides and are telling us different stories. There is no solid story. And many of us parents have tried to email MDE and Charles Thomas but we have heard nothing from them.

Alex: There is a video of a MDE official, Janis Weckstein, talking with the protesters and asking for a meeting on campus.

Janis Weckstein, via interpreter: I’m with MDE. I want to hear all of your concerns. Right now I’m a little concerned about the weather and safety and the health of the students and your time. I would like to invite the students to…

(Crowd saying NO!)

Weckstein: I’m not done. I want to invite any students who are here to come in there and talk with me. I’m more than happy to meet with you. With the parents as well.

(Crowd talking back)

Interpreter: I want a real parents meeting now.

Weckstein: I will address that now. I understand that. I understand your concerns. We did send a communications email from the MDE about the process for hiring a principal position. That process is exactly what will be followed. It will not change.

Alex: The Daily Moth reached out to Weckstein for a statement, but did not get an immediate response. If I do, I will add it in the comments section.

This protest is happening at a time of increased anxiety by multiple members of the Michigan Deaf community. There were at least two town halls in the past several months on issues with MSD.

A MSD alumni and activist from Flint, Stevie Naeyaert, told “The Daily Moth” that there is a lack of Deaf leaders at MSD and that there are difficulties with finding qualified people. She explained that MSD’s top official for the dormitory is also a hearing non-signer. So there are two leaders who can’t sign.

Naeyaert explained that the MSD campus was sold about 8 years ago to a Catholic school program. MSD still uses a section of the campus by renting it out from the school program.

There have been some concerns from the Deaf community that the MDE wants to make major changes to the school, which could include closing the school.

Naeyaert said she has been told, by some parents who wanted to send their students to MSD, that the MSD and MDE said the school is “full”, while it is not. So this is a cause for concern.

The MDE did make a statement in local news in April that rumors of the school closing is not true.

I asked the two student leaders on what they would do going forward.

Jake: When I get back to school in the fall and see who is the principal, if I don’t like it, we’ll start another protest.

Lucas: My hope is… That they change. Pick Rex Vernon as our principal. And make them realize it. If they don’t, we’ll protest again.

Alex: Thank you to the students and the parents who provided comments.

UPDATE: Annie Urasky from the Michigan Division on Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing posted a video statement about the issues.

[Video clip: The Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Division on Deaf DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing are monitoring developments at the Michigan School for the Deaf (MSD) located just outside of Flint. MSD students and their parents should feel free to exercise their rights to be informed about and involved in decisions about the management, policies and procedures of their school. Staffing the School for the Deaf with individuals who are unable to communicate effectively with students is unacceptable.

MDCR Director Arbulu and I will be reaching out to the Michigan Department of Education, MSD school administration, students and members of the deaf community to offer our assistance in addressing these serious concerns.]