A 13-year-old killed himself after being bullied at Everett High; report shows school did little to help
LANSING – A Lansing School District internal investigation conducted after a 13-year-old student took his own life shows the boy was bullied in school and district officials did not address concerns despite pleas from the boy's mother and a request for intervention from his teachers.
The investigation was conducted by a school district employee, Public Safety Officer Darin Walter, after Michael Martin’s death on Jan. 25. It was submitted to school officials March 25.
The school district's report also was shared with the Lansing Police Department, which concluded its investigation in April without seeking any criminal charges, a spokesman said.
Walter interviewed or took written statements from 27 students at Everett High School as well as district staff, including the head of his department, Director of Public Safety Cordelia Black, Everett Assistant Principal Priscilla Ellis, a school counselor, a truancy officer and nine teachers in the weeks after Michael’s death. Michael was an eighth grader at Everett.
Nearly half of the students Walter interviewed said they witnessed or heard about students calling Michael names or shoving him at school, according to the report. Several also said they noticed a change in Michael’s behavior in the months before his death.
Several of Michael’s teachers told Walter they noticed those changes, too. They had talked about Michael in December and submitted a written referral that month to Ellis, the assistant principal, asking that Michael receive some kind of intervention.
The teachers' request came after Ellis had been contacted repeatedly since November by Michael’s mother, Joanna Wohlfert, with concerns about his increasing absences from school.
Walter’s report doesn’t address what action, if any, Ellis took regarding the teachers’ request.
The district released a heavily redacted copy of the report to the State Journal on Wednesday in response to a public records request. All but 41 pages of the 121 pages of documents were blacked out. Of the remaining 41 pages, all but four were so heavily redacted they were unreadable.
The State Journal independently obtained a 121-page copy of the report that had just 17 pages completely blacked out. That copy includes a 37-page narrative by Walter and 84 pages of attachments including emails between school staff and Wohlfert.
The report of the district's investigation is proof, Wohlfert said, that school staff didn’t care enough about her son to seek real answers when concerns were raised about him being bullied. Just reading it made her frustrated and angry.
Wohlfert said no one from the district has spoken to her, or Michael's stepfather, Joe Wohlfert, since Michael's death, and the report gives no evidence that happened. Ellis spoke briefly with Joe Wohlfert at Sparrow Hospital before Michael died.
“What do they do at that school if they’re not helping anybody?” Joanna Wohlfert said. “They don’t get it.”
Lansing schools Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul declined to answer questions about the investigation Thursday.
In an emailed statement she wrote, "The district conducted an investigation in full cooperation with the Lansing Police Department. The district is not at liberty to discuss any circumstances about a case in which litigation is pending. In addition, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) legally obligates the district to maintain the privacy of all students."
Wohlfert said, while her family has retained attorneys, no lawsuit has been filed.
Urgent pleas, no resolution
School district policies require that investigations into reported bullying "must be completed as promptly as the circumstances permit and should, if possible, be completed within three (3) school days after a report or complaint is made."
Walter, the investigator, noted in two separate interviews with Ellis that she cited several days when Michael was in school but she was unable to meet with him “due to her scheduled and unscheduled events.”
Ellis had one face-to-face meeting with Michael on Dec. 17 after his teacher, Alison Lux, said another student called Michael a “school shooter” in class and Michael became upset, according to the report. He was initially sent to Jennifer West, a school counselor.
After meeting with Michael, West wrote an email to Lux on Dec. 17, “Sooooo, I am more than happy to be a quiet space for students. However, I need some sort of heads up regarding the student in my office. He will not speak to me. He will not acknowledge I am speaking to him. Again, more than happy to sit here with him, but in so doing, I am turning away other students……”
West sent Michael to Ellis because he wouldn’t talk to her, she told Walter.
Michael confirmed being bullied by “high school students” on his school bus, Ellis said, but gave her no other information, the report shows. Michael was unable to name the students he said were bullying him, and Ellis offered to accompany him to his bus to identify them if he returned to her office at the end of the school day. She told Walter Michael didn't come back at the end of the school day.
Michael attended eighth grade classes at Everett High School as an Everett New Tech High School student. The magnet program operates within the building.
Wohlfert continued to ask Ellis and West for assistance for another five weeks before Michael's death.
In a Jan. 8 email to West, Wohlfert wrote, “I have reached out to the bus garage and the assistant principal trying to get some help for my son. He went from going to school to not going at all. He says there is some bullying on the bus.”
“I AM ASKING FOR ANY HELP I CAN GET,” she wrote in all capital letters.
Neither Ellis or West, the report shows, met with Michael after Dec. 17.
Denise Griffin, a student support specialist at Everett, met with Michael at Ellis' request "sometime between the middle of November and the middle of December." She couldn't recall the exact day she met with Michael, Griffin told Walter, but it was to talk with him about allegations he was being bullied on his school bus.
"Griffin stated Martin told her that some students on the bus were 'messing' with him," Walter wrote in the report. "Griffin stated Martin told her the students were making fun of him, and calling him names."
Griffin said Michael was "withdrawn" and "unwilling" to give more details.
Michael was never placed on her caseload or referred to her again, she told Walter.
Michael’s absences mounted in the months before he died.
Attendance records Wohlfert obtained from Everett High School after Michael's death show his absences date back to September. He missed 33 days this school year, more than six weeks of classes.
According to the investigation, a school truancy officer never investigated the excessive absences nor spoke with Michael's parents about them.
The district’s policies require that excessive absences, even when verified by a parent or guardian, “will be investigated by school district personnel," according to the district’s student handbook.
Neither did Student Services Coordinator Rose Taphouse. According to her statement provided to Walter, one of her roles is to serve as an “Attendance Specialist.”
Teachers requested help for Martin
Teachers Emmanual Kamm and Lux submitted what the district calls a “Cultural Awareness Center Referral Form” for Michael to Ellis on Dec. 19, and checked boxes on the form noting “depression,” “anxiety,” and “poor emotional regulation.”
“Student shuts down when confronted with anything remotely adverse,”’ Lux wrote on the form.
A section on the form that would show what intervention and document any referral to an agency is blank on the copy included in Walter's report.
Lux told Walter she filled it out in mid-December after talking with a few other teachers about Michael’s behavior. After another student called Michael a “school shooter,” she took Martin into the hallway to talk about it.
Once Lux and Michael were in the hallway, Michael "shut down" and "lowered his face, refusing to talk,” Lux told Walter.
It wasn’t the first time this school year Michael had refused to respond when she asked him a question, Lux told Walter. She said at least one other teacher told her he had experienced the same thing when interacting with Michael.
Walter noted that Lux said “this behavior did not seem normal,” that she called Michael’s mother, Joanna Wohlfert, who told her Michael was being bullied, before submitting the form to Ellis.
Several teachers Walter interviewed noted a change in Michael’s behavior dating back to last spring, though they told the school resource officer they didn’t notice him being bullied.
Several students, whose names were redacted in the copy of the investigation the State Journal obtained, reported noticing changes in his behavior. Just over a dozen reported seeing Michael being called names at school or heard about it from other students.
One student Walter interviewed described Michael as “mostly happy, but sometimes he would get angry because others would call him names.”
Students called Michael “fat,” “stupid” and “gay,” several students told Walter. One student described an incident where Michael was “pulled into the middle of a circle of boys who were all playing around, and Martin was pushed around the circle.”
Walter reviewed camera footage taken from Everett High School on four separate dates: Jan. 11, and Jan. 16 to 18. His notes indicate he didn’t observe Michael being bullied in the footage.
Walter did not review camera footage taken on any other days during the three months Michael’s mother indicated he was being bullied, according to the report. It's not clear how long the school district keeps video footage.
Chronic absences were common knowledge
Michael’s chronic absences from school were common knowledge to students and staff, the investigation shows.
The schools’ investigation shows staff didn't investigate Michael’s absences, beyond responding to Wohlfert's emails in which she shares concerns about them, despite its own policy requiring investigation.
School counselor Jennifer West never mentioned directing the schools’ truancy staff to address them in her interview with Walter.
A district truancy officer, Bryan Crenshaw, did not speak with Michael’s parents about his chronic absences.
Walters didn't interview Crenshaw or Taphouse. According to his report, both submitted written statements to him.
Michael's name was listed on an attendance report Crenshaw pulled that identified students with 10 or more absences in a class period, according to his statement, but he told Walter he never received a referral from school staff to address Michael's absences.
Crenshaw, who is also an Ingham County commissioner, wrote in his statement to Walter, “While I have received referrals from the administration at Everett High School on students who have attendance issues, Michael’s name was never sent to my office to check to see why he was not attending school on a regular basis.”
A "Truancy Court" file was created on Michael, according to Taphouse. It was Crenshaw's responsibility to call his parents to discuss attendance issues, according to her statement.
"Taphouse stated she never received the file back from Crenshaw for (Michael) after she gave it to him in late August or early September, and any action after would have to be addressed by Crenshaw," Walter wrote in his report.
Bus driver never told about bullying
In early January, Wohlfert said she left three messages with Dean Transportation, the company that provides student transportation for Lansing students. She tried to speak with Michael’s bus driver or a supervisor about bullying on the bus. She said no one returned her phone calls.
Walter interviewed one employee from Dean Transportation, Michael’s bus driver, Nichole Atwater. She told Walter she never saw Martin being bullied on the school bus.
Atwater told Walter no one at the company reported Wohlfert’s concerns to her.
“Atwater stated nobody told her that there were allegations of somebody being bullied on her bus, if they had, she would have been looking for it,” Walter wrote.
In his Dec. 17 meeting with Ellis, Michael told her he was being bullied on his school bus. The school district's investigative report does not indicate whether Ellis contacted Dean Transportation to report the bullying.
A spokesman for Dean Transportation did not answer questions from the State Journal about whether Ellis communicated to the company that Michael said he was being bullied on his bus.
On Thursday, Dean issued a statement: "Dean Transportation was deeply saddened by Michael's tragic passing. Dean fully cooperated with the Lansing School District and Lansing Police Department in the investigation of this incident. Due to pending litigation and privacy requirements under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Dean is not able to comment further on the situation at this time."
Walter interviewed half a dozen students who rode the bus with Michael. None of them recalled seeing him being bullied on the bus.
He reviewed camera footage from Michael’s school bus for a three-day period, Jan 16 to 18, and wrote that he observed no bullying taking place.
Walter didn’t review camera footage taken on any other days during the three months Michael’s mother indicated he was being bullied on the bus, according to the report. The State Journal was unable to determine how long video footage is retained from the school buses.
No charges, delays in getting documents
The Lansing Police Department has reviewed the school district’s investigation as part of a separate criminal investigation by the department, Public Information Director Robert Merritt said in an April 12 email to the State Journal.
That investigation was completed in early April, Merritt told the State Journal.
"There was not any evidence or suspect for a crime committed," and the department's investigation was not submitted to the Ingham County Prosecutor's office for review, Merritt said in an email Wednesday.
The State Journal made a public record request for the criminal investigation about three weeks ago but has not received it from city officials.
SEE THE REPORT BELOW: The State Journal has concealed any section of this report that address details of Michael Martin's death, in accordance with recommendations from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for journalists reporting about suicides. We also removed family email addresses and pages concerning Michael’s grades and attendance.
13-year-old died from suicide, despite his mother's pleas to Lansing Schools, Dean Transportation
Michael Martin’s mom says bullying led to death; a month later, she still hasn’t heard from Lansing school officials
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Contact Reporter Rachel Greco at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ. Reporters RJ Wolcott and Kara Berg contributed to this report.