WB-RC chooses not to fire teachers who wrote leniency letters for Erickson
Entire staff will receive ethics training, district will attempt to accommodate parents who don’t want their children in teachers’ classes
WEST BRANCH — The teachers who wrote letters asking for leniency for former West Branch-Rose City teacher Neal Erickson, who recently pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct with a student, will not be fired.
The West Branch-Rose City school board voted 4-2 Aug. 19 to require ethics training for the entire staff of the district, and to attempt to accommodate requests from parents who do not want their children in the teachers’ classrooms.
Dick Bachelder and Pat Beasley cast the dissenting votes. Mike Eagan, whose wife was one of the letter writers, abstained from the vote.
After the meeting, Bachelder told the Herald he voted no because he didn’t think the recommendations were “stiff enough.” Beasley did not comment.
The vote came after approximately two hours of public comment, as well as a lengthy closed session to consider a letter from its attorney.
When the board returned from closed session, board President Jack Money read a statement from the board, defining its decision.
“As a board, we have examined all sides of this issue and there are no easy answers,” he said. “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, and 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.”
Many community members packed the auditorium at Ogemaw Heights High School for the meeting, most speaking out against the teachers, while a few spoke in their defense.
Austin Piglowski, a former student in the district, said he didn’t agree with how the teachers and Eagan were being treated.
“I feel that Mr. Eagan, as well as the letter writing teachers as they are being referred to as, are being nothing short of victimized,” he said. “The group on the Facebook page (in support of the Janczewskis, the parents of the victim) seems to have a mob-like mentality. I feel that it’s becoming like a witch hunt and it’s a plague on the community as a whole.”
Piglowski said that he didn’t feel the teachers should have written the letters, but they should not be punished for doing so.
“Whether or not you agree with their choice, their ability to do this was within their rights,” he said. “Nobody was harmed as a result of this except for people’s feelings. Although that’s definitely not something to be taken lightly, it is not a punishable offence.”
He said there are many people who support the teachers and Eagan, but are afraid to attend the meetings from fear of backlash.
Community member John Young said he wasn’t sure why people were afraid, including the teachers.
“The teachers are hiding,” he said. “Because we’re afraid of what? We’ve got law officers here. We’re out to solve a problem — a huge problem.”
“I hope that you board members can do the right thing tonight,” Young said. “Because of the time that’s been involved in this whole process, the only right thing I can say is fire the teachers.”
During the meeting, board members Beasley and Richard Nelson were asked why they were not at last month’s special board meeting. Nelson said he had left on vacation before the notice for the meeting was sent out. Beasley said she was working and on call, taking care of a patient.
“I was on my way to the meeting when I got the call,” she said. “The meeting was a nonscheduled meeting. My priority was with the person that I had to take care of.”
Nelson made the motion to accept the recommendations from the board, with Scott Williams supporting.
Following the decision, most of those in attendance left the meeting.
“I hope you’re happy,” someone shouted. “Because nobody else is.”
The board also read a letter submitted by the teachers to the board.
“Dear community,” the teachers wrote. “Criminal sexual conduct is a serious crime that 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 we empathize with their pain. It is our sincerest hope that the community will move forward for the sake of the students.
Erickson was sentenced July 10 to 15-30 years in prison for first-degree CSC.