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Oxford school board president explains his sudden resignation


The former president of the Oxford board of education says he worked hard to get answers to questions, demand accountability from the district and create a timeline of what happened after the Nov. 30 school massacre at Oxford High, but alleges district lawyers withheld documents, preventing him from making a difference.

So Tom Donnelly said he left less than one month into the new school year and as the Oakland County school district approaches the anniversary of a school shooting that claimed the lives of four students and fueled mistrust of school officials in the community.

Specifically, Donnelly alleged the district’s lawyers never sent the board a March 4 statement from the Oakland County prosecutor’s office about its role in any potential third-party investigation.

Mary Larkin, victim services leader in the prosecutor's office, wrote the email that was sent to about 1,000 families who signed up for updates on the criminal case and any updates Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald was providing.

The email contained a message from McDonald that she had advised the attorneys for the Oxford Community Schools that her office "has not and will not direct Oxford Community Schools regarding what information they provide to the public, and will not tell them whether, how or when they should conduct an investigation into the shooting."

Tim Mullins, attorney for the district in its civil litigation and other matters, said Wednesday that everything received by his law firm has always been available to all board members, including Donnelly.

"Nothing has been withheld. I am informing the board week by week as things are going on," Mullins said. "I tell them I can give you all the documents or let you know what is going on."

Asked if he had a conversation with the board about McDonald's March 4 message, Mullins said: "I did explain to them there is a process. We are working through the process and we are not withholding anything of a prosecutorial direction."

Donnelly said he never heard McDonald's statement from district attorneys and only learned of it in May when a parent showed him an email she had received containing the statement.

"My lawyers got this document and never told me. I’m getting my ass handed to me at every meeting. They (parents) seem to have knowledge I don’t have. I could have known this in early March and I am in a silo learning in early May. Isn’t that incredible? I didn’t know what the average parents out there knew," Donnelly said.

The document was key information, he said, and prompted him to reverse a prior decision to hold off on an independent investigation into the shooting until criminal and civil litigation was completed.

Left in the dark

As president, Donnelly announced May 10 the district was not proceeding with an independent investigation and drew criticism from the community. A week later, on May 17, after learning of the March 4 email, Donnelly said district officials would pursue a probe. 

Donnelly said he felt left in the dark on numerous matters. He was stunned and angry about the lapse, yet he didn't question Mullins or other legal counsel about it.

"I never went nose-to-nose to find where the note went," Donnelly said.

But he did ask attorneys who they work for.

"If you work for us, then how come week after week, month after month, we aren't provided the information that we need?" Donnelly said.

One Oxford parent told The Detroit News she sent Donnelly and the board the email from the prosecutor's office on March 4. She provided The News with the email showing the date it was sent to numerous email addresses, including all members of the board and most top school administrators.

Donnelly admitted he must have missed the email from the parent. But he said once he learned about it, he went back and checked his email to see if the district’s lawyers had sent any such document or any letter with the prosecutor’s statements, and he found nothing. Neither did other board members, he said.

"I’m up there saying we can't start a third-party review ... only for people to say you are lying and you are covering up," Donnelly said. "How can I be so involved as a board president and sometimes feel I am missing key information?"

Donnelly said he worked for three weeks to get an audience with the Oakland County prosecutor's office and try to watch the video of the school attack to get an understanding of what he can disclose to the school community.

"I wanted to be the first to bring a Nov 30. timeline, just a factual timeline. Ethan’s timeline. School reaction timeline. Police timeline. A complete timeline as to when this happened. The community doesn’t even have that," Donnelly said. "I went to the OCPO and had that meeting. They would not let me see the video. They mentioned the gag order. They told me I don’t qualify to see it."

Donnelly said he understands the prosecutor's office is focused on the criminal probe and justice. He said his focus is on the students, the community and understanding what happened because it is what people are asking for.

And again, he feels he cannot do what he was elected to do: serve the school community.

"People are right: No matter how I try, the board is ineffective. The board cannot get information because there are silos out there. A legal silo, a police silo, a board silo, a school silo. I am beginning to feel I am not doing the good I thought I was doing," Donnelly said, explaining his sudden departure last week. 

Donnelly's last straw

Donnelly said that in the last month, he has been meeting one-on-one with angry parents and attended a "recall the board" meeting on a recent Saturday. There, he said he spoke to people "who finally saw me as someone who was listening and who cared for the community."

What cemented his exit from the board, however, was an incident after the Sept. 13 board meeting, said Donnelly, who is a pastor. Members of his church offered to support him and he suggested they come to a board meeting and sit and be quiet and pray.

Two church members were at the meeting and someone confronted them in an ugly way, Donnelly said. It was the last straw, he said.

"It's one thing if I get accosted and attacked. To have one of my members to get told things about me and the church and that are just wrong, they should have never experienced that," Donnelly said.

"If I strip that title away – which I didn’t want to do – would I be able to do what I want to do, which is get answers and bring healing to the community? I think I can do this," Donnelly said about resigning from the board. "I think there is some evidence from people who still want to talk to me. I want to go to the board meetings and fill out the slip and get my three minutes of time and bring a positive voice."

Parent Danielle Krozek said Donnelly and former board member Korey Bailey, who resigned Monday, were actually listening, learning and taking action, or trying to in recent weeks.

"I personally do not feel comfortable with what remains on the board.  There is no proactive engagement outside of their own circles to get a sense of what the community and students are feeling and need. Tom and Korey finally took that step to do that," Krozek said.

Krozek's daughter was a freshman and in school on the day of the Nov. 30 attack. Krozek said she remains concerned about the district’s ability to conduct a proper threat assessment and questions whether proper corrective actions have been put in place for students there now, including her daughter.

"I respect they won't sacrifice their integrity knowing what they know," Krozek said about Donnelly and Bailey. "It (their departure) sends a huge message."

jchambers@detroitnews.com