Listen to this article here
Cheyenne Johnson, 29, was shocked when her son Xavier, a 6th-grade student at West Intermediate Middle School (WIMS), in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, text messaged her for help while at school on Nov. 19, 2021.
Xavier, who is Black and Indigenous, was isolated in a windowless room with no desk, chair, schoolwork or adult supervision. School staff used a rubber doorstop to prevent the 11-year-old from freeing himself.
Seclusion can be distressing to any child, but it is especially harmful for students like Xavier whose education is guided by an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). According to a 2019 report from the Center for Disease Control, suicide was the second leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Native youth between the ages of 10 and 34. Further, racism, discrimination and pressure to assimilate to White culture and standards increases the risk of suicide and self-harm for both Indigenous and Black youth.
According to the Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education, IEPs are created for each public school student who receives special education programs and services. Moreover, IEPs are legally binding documents with guidelines established by Congress through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Locked in Solitary Confinement at School
A disturbing video sent to The Black Wall Street Times shows the child seated on the floor surrounded by concrete walls – not unlike what you would see in a typical jail cell.
An employee at Isabella County Jail in Mt. Pleasant told The Black Wall Street Times that even detainees have access to designated areas to sit and rest throughout the entire intake process – a basic show of dignity not afforded to Xavier by the Mt. Pleasant Public Schools (MPPS) district.
Upon seeing the video, Johnson says she felt physically ill. “I thought, is my kid in a holding cell?” The barren room appears to have been the school’s version of in-school suspension received for an alleged minor altercation with another student.
The 11-year-old boy was locked in an empty room – seemingly to “serve time” in solitary confinement rather than what should have been a reduced version of the normal school day through in-school suspension at his middle school.
If he needed to use the restroom, he was told he could ask and he would be taken to the restroom “at the discretion of” school staff. The school-to-prison pipeline theory feels a whole lot shorter when you hear stories like this. Additionally, Xavier alleges that a school staffer told him that he would contact the police since he was texting his mother from the room. The student felt intimidated and retaliated against by the staffer after reporting his harsh experience to his mother.
This troubling incident is far from the first the family has experienced in MPPS. Xavier requires a range of accommodations to remediate the effects of his personal learning factors. These include reduced volume of classwork, voice-to-text writing for assignments of certain lengths, and the ability to take walking breaks during class.
But Johnson says her son has not consistently received these accommodations if he’s received them at all.
The alleged failure to properly implement Xavier’s IEP compounds the day-to-day stressors of being a Black and Indigenous student in a school with a student body that is more than 70% White; a school where Indigenous students are eight times more likely to be suspended than their White peers and Black and Brown students are more likely to be expelled.
Johnson does not hold the position that her child is without any fault, but she doesn’t know what else she can do besides ask the school to adhere to Xavier’s IEP.
Proper de-escalation protocols, highly qualified and trained staff, and a behavior modification planned by a functional behavioral assessment are appropriate and legally required.
Johnson is actively engaged in Xavier’s education and even offers for her husband or herself to sit in class with Xavier to ensure he can stay in class. But Johnson feels the effort is not being returned by those charged with providing an equitable education to her son.
During one exchange with special education staff in which Johnson explained Xavier had shared that he needs extra help at school, the staff member said “not according to him. Lol. He’s at the age where he’s going to need to start advocating for himself.”
Xavier has reported a pattern of racially charged bullying and other cruel remarks throughout his years at MPPS. These acts have seemingly been allowed to flourish to no end in sight, which violates his guaranteed equal protection under the law.
In 5th grade, Xavier told his mother that he “didn’t want to be Black anymore” because a classmate had called him a n*gger and others were bullying him for being Black.
When Johnson addressed this with school staff, it was explained that Xavier and another student were discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and “Xavier basically got what he dished out.” The official also stated that “in this day and time, some of us need to tread lighter than others due to the color of our skin.”
Notably, students do not shed their constitutional rights at the school gate.
In November 2021 alone, Xavier was subjected to at least two other traumatic encounters with school staff.
Striped Searched by School Staff
On Nov. 10, a student accused Xavier of bringing a firearm on campus. Xavier was removed from his 7th-period class and taken to an empty classroom to be searched by his special education teacher Jason Russell and WIMS Vice-Principal Matt Walderzak, according to Xavier.
Xavier was shaken when he told his mother his sweatshirt was removed, shirt lifted and his pants were pulled down to his knees. No weapons were found, and Xavier was sent back to class.
While processing the experience at home with family, Xavier wrote to his mother:
“I feel embarrassed and humiliated by what they did. I feel like there is a target on my back now.” He continued, “I don’t wanna go back to that school. I don’t wanna be bullied for telling my mom what they did. I will never trust them again.”
This same day, Russell sent a text toJohnson at 1:21 P.M. to inform her that Xavier had his phone taken away for texting in class. But there was no mention of a firearm accusation, multiple searches or that her son had to remove his clothing in front of two adults.
Johnson was not contacted by any school official regarding the incident. It was only after Johnson picked Xavier up from school that she learned he was accused of bringing a firearm to school and strip-searched by Russell and Walderzak.
“I was mortified. I was scared. I was definitely angry, and I asked him to explain to me what happened. I said you’re not in trouble. I need to know everything,” Johnson said. “He told me, ‘they searched me. Another kid said I had a gun.’ He said ‘Mom, I don’t know why they said that. I promise I never said anything like that. This kid doesn’t like me.’ And I immediately picked my phone up and reached out to his teachers.”
Within minutes, Johnson contacted Russell saying, “Xavier said he was searched today. Is there something I should be aware of?”
Russell responded, “Yes. I was just talking to the principal. Someone reported that Xavier was saying he has a gun w(sic) him today.” Johnson then responded, “He doesn’t even have access to a fire arm (sic).” In response, Russell stated, “So I checked his locker and the principal and I asked him if he had anything on him. Sounds like he told a friend at lunch” – declining to inform Johnson that he and Walderzak had taken her son to a classroom to strip search the young boy.
Johnson’s fear became a spider web of concerns.
She wondered, “If you thought my kid had a gun, why wasn’t the school put on lock-down? Why wasn’t law enforcement called? Why didn’t you call us? Obviously, I was scared for my own child’s safety, but if they genuinely thought that accusation warranted strip searching my kid then they could have potentially put every kid in that school in danger.”
The following day, Xavier was accused by an educator of making a firearm-related threat.
“I can’t help but be frustrated. They call me countless times, day after day after day, to tell me my kid is misbehaving. And I get it. And I answer the calls, come to the school, address his behaviors at home. But if you can call me constantly for small things, why the hell didn’t you call me when you supposedly thought he had a gun?”
Context on Racial Bias and Disparities in MPPSD
Xavier’s story could be that of countless other differently-abled Black and Brown children. Based on The Black Wall Street Times’ conversations with advocates, his experience with racist or discriminatory behavior is one that is shared with many past and present students of MPPSD.
Jurnee Hoffmeyer, a seven-year-old Black elementary school student, had her hair secretly cut nearly to the scalp by MPPS staff earlier this year.
While the Hoffmeyer family continues to struggle for information surrounding the mostly-unpunished assault on Jurnee, the school district administrative offices are continuing to box out student families’ from gaining access to sensitive information and video evidence.
The Black Wall Street Times sent a request for comment to MPPS Superintendent Jennifer Verleger, asking her to address questions concerning isolating children in windowless rooms with no chairs, desks, homework or adults; failure to implement IEPs; policy and procedure for responding to threats of firearms on campus.
Through a public relations firm specializing in crisis communications, Verleger responded in-part:
“At Mt. Pleasant Public Schools, we are committed to making our schools a safe and welcoming place for all students. Because of this commitment, we take threats and reports of threats very seriously and thoroughly investigate all allegations in an appropriate manner that is in line with district policy and procedures. We are proud of our staff that works tirelessly to support all our students and make our schools a safe and welcoming place to learn.”
What remains unknown is how locking a child in an empty room with no chair, desk, homework or adult supervision is aligned with the district’s tireless work to make WIMS a safe and welcoming place to learn. And while the district may take threats seriously, The Black Wall Street Times has yet to locate information detailing how seriously they take false reporting of serious threats.
The statement from Verlenger continued:
“As a school district, we are bound by federal law to protect the privacy of individual students. We have a deep commitment and responsibility to protect that privacy and, as such, the school district cannot comment on inquiries involving individual students.”
The school district is also bound by federal law that protects differently-abled students. They are also morally and ethically responsible for ensuring Indigenous, Black and Brown students are not being excessively disciplined and excluded from their education compared to their White classmates. They also have a professional responsibility to engage with the parents of exceptional students to formulate the best course of action for student learning through IEPs and other student-centered strategies to reinforce existing best practices.
And the largest question looming unanswered is, does Superintendent Verlenger support the use of isolation chambers for children receiving special education services?
An excerpt from a response issued by the National Parents Union is as follows:
“The child’s family sought an explanation about the horrible incident their son experienced, but finding none, they reached out to us for assistance and support.
We stand in strong opposition to the harsh, exclusionary practice of total isolation, endorsed and supported by Mt. Pleasant School District.
We find it inhumane, unconscionable, potentially unlawful, a violation of the child’s human and civil rights — also an injustice to a child — especially a child with a disability.
We are also aware of a pattern and history of exclusionary, harsh, zero tolerance, practices and over-suspensions of the student who was harmed in this situation and other children of color by Mount Pleasant Public Schools.
We believe in restorative practices, fair justice, and vehemently reject any idea, narrative, or suggestion that locking this student in a small room was proper and humane treatment.
We believe our children should always be at the core of any agenda in every educational decision process, that there should be liberation, justice, and equity in education for all children, and that education systems must be transformed to eradicate generational institutions of oppression. We call upon district and community leaders to do the necessary work of repairing the harm done by embracing restorative justice practices, policy changes, and providing space and guidance for introspective work to occur.”
The National Parents Union encourages any former students, or families of students at Mt. Pleasant Public Schools, who have experienced discrimination or abuse while at school to fill out this short Google form if you are interested in sharing your story.