Parents make emotional plea to Oxford school officials to address security
Oxford — Parents of Oxford High School students and one survivor of the Nov. 30 mass shooting made emotional pleas on Thursday for improved safety measures inside the school.
Two parents accused school officials of failing to create new policies and procedures to make their children feel safe. They also said they were angry that Oxford Community Schools hasn't hired a company to perform a third-party review of the rampage that left four students dead and seven other people wounded more than four months ago.
A lack of action by the district and school board sends the message that school officials are more interested in protecting themselves than students, said Lori Bourgeau, a parent of an Oxford High School student and organizer of the Parents of Oxford group.
"The school needs to do an investigation. They promised one in December and again in January, and they started changing their tune. They blamed the prosecutor for not doing it," Bourgeau said. "You can't fix a problem if you don’t know what is broken. By not doing an investigation, they are not looking at what broke down in the chain."
Bourgeau said members of her parents' group have sent hundreds of emails, made repeated calls and other communication attempts with district administrators and the Board of Education, only to be ignored and have their questions unanswered.
Oxford Community School Superintendent Ken Weaver issued a statement Thursday evening in which he said the safety and emotional well-being of students and staff is the district's top priority.
"We also strive each and every day to foster a culture of compassion, understanding, and respect. We value all parent and student input and continue to work with our students and parents through these difficult times," Weaver said.
"Since the tragedy on Nov. 30, Oxford Community Schools has engaged our community through meetings, phone calls, town halls, forums and surveys to listen and garner feedback. We have also consulted with mental health experts, security experts and local law enforcement in developing our plans.
"We have taken numerous specific and tangible steps to promote the physical safety and emotional well-being of our students and staff."
In December, the Oakland County district declined an offer from Attorney General Dana Nessel to conduct a review of the shooting. Nessel is hosting a community forum for Oxford parents, students and family members on Monday. The event is not open to the media.
"The attorney general looks forward to hearing directly from community members when she visits Oxford next week and takes their concerns seriously," Nessel spokeswoman Lynsey Mukomel said.
Mukomel said the media are being excluded "to ensure the comfort of attendees" and that Nessel would consider additional dates in Oxford if community interest exceeded the capacity for the event.
Oxford school board President Tom Donnelly said a subcommittee of the school board is in the process of vetting potential companies to do the review.
"As we have more information gathered, an update will be given to our community in an upcoming school board meeting,” Donnelly said in an email to The News.
Parents are also asking for a public review of the district's current student safety plan and want full community input into an updated school safety plan for the 2022-23 school year that reassures students, helps end learning loss and fully addresses mental health issues.
On Thursday, at the American Legion in Oxford, Oxford High School junior Griffen Jones said he wants to see metal detectors at the high school as a sign that school officials are taking security seriously. Clear backpacks and checking IDs have done nothing to make students feel safer, he said.
“I feel Oxford has failed to keep the student body safe," Griffen said. "They have failed to show they care about us as people and individuals. They have added almost nothing since we came back. Every day I pray that whatever conversation I have with my friends isn’t my last. Every day I pray I won’t die on the high school floor because of the lack of caring.”
Griffen’s father, Jeff Jones, said some students from Oxford High do not feel safe in school. He wants the school board to move forward on an independent review of the incident and update a school safety plan and code of conduct, saying the students “need hope” that next year will be different.
“The sheer panic on a daily basis there — a lot of kids don’t make it a full day or week. They don’t eat in the cafeteria and they won’t use the bathroom,” Jones said. “The school needs to update its security plan so students feel safe in school.”
Weaver addressed attendance in his Thursday statement.
"Our strong attendance rates of over 90 percent across all our schools are a testament to the resilience of our community, the dedication of our staff, students and families, the strength of our plan which was crafted with input from key stakeholders and experts, and our collective refusal to allow the tragic events of Nov. 30 to define us," he said.
Parent Mike Aldred became emotional during his plea to Oxford school officials for more security measures and open communication with students and families.
“Too many Oxford students are struggling with learning due to continued worries about safety procedures in Oxford schools, leading to learning loss and unaddressed mental health issues,” Aldred said.
Notices from school officials about new threats, rumors or investigations lack detail, he said.
“No one knows if Oxford's safety procedures are proper and what updates are required so that day can never happen for us or other schools across the country. ... Things must change before the new (school) year,” Aldred said.
Weaver has said the district received advice from five school districts that have experienced similar trauma.
Recent threats deemed non-credible by police also have many Oxford families, students and community members on edge. Oxford Community Schools was among multiple school districts in northern Oakland County that received threatening phone calls on April 8 that law enforcement deemed non-credible.
The district did not go into lockdown, which some parents challenged on social media. Lake Orion did lock down, and Clarkston sheltered students and staff in place.
"We do not want to put students and staff through any unnecessary psychological trauma by going into a lockdown when it is not warranted, therefore, particular consideration was taken when making the decision whether to lockdown or not," Weaver said in a statement to families.
Bourgeau said she doesn't know whether what Oxford school officials did was right or not, but she has a lack of trust and faith in their leadership.
"Not locking down may have been the right thing. I don’t trust our board or district, and I don’t think they are equipped to make the right choices," she said. "I don’t have the faith that they have enough knowledge in what we are going through to ensure our kids are safe."
On Nov. 30, four Oxford High School students were killed in the shooting: Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17. Six students and a teacher were wounded.
On Thursday, Hana’s father, Steve St. Juliana, and her sister, Reina, who survived the shooting, filed a civil lawsuit against the district and several administrators.
The lawsuit claims Reina suffered irreparable harm and names Oxford Superintendent Kenneth Weaver — not for damages, but for "prospective equitable and injunctive relief to restore her right to a full public education."
"Reina St. Juliana asks the Court to order Superintendent Weaver to protect her interests by ordering a root cause analysis” of the Nov. 30 incident and to take “prospective measures to ensure that the District complies with its constitutional obligations to safeguard the safety of its students, including training its administrators…not to release suicidal students back into the classroom when there is probable cause to know that doing so will result in deadly violence.”
The school had about 1,650 students in classes on the day of the shooting with about 100 teachers and staff, according to the Oakland County Sheriff's Office.
In March, the district announced it will create a three-year recovery plan and hire a recovery coordinator and an executive director of student services and wellness to address student mental health needs.
The new positions are to ensure students get the support and care needed to heal, school officials have said. The district is also adding two counseling positions to the high school and two family-school liaisons who will work with students to improve social and emotional behavior at the elementary school.