GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids-area family says that since moving to the Forest Hills area, they have experienced a culture of bias.
Parents Landon and Rashida Mitchner say with a growing family, they moved to Forest Hills about seven years ago. They say they were most attracted to the neighborhood because of the excellent school system. But as one of the only Black families in the area, they say they have run into a number of microaggressions.
“When you live out in the Forest Hills area, you don’t have to see Black people and there’s very few of us that live out here and so you can literally grow up and not have to see Black people until you’re in school,” Landon Mitchner said.
Mitchner said his family’s mere existence in the predominantly white area has resulted in several incidents over the years.
“I’ve been jogging down the street and had a car swerve at me to run me off the road,” he recalled.
Mitchner said though their neighborhood is quiet, they also noticed an increased police presence.
“When we first moved out here, we saw the police a lot. We just didn’t realize the police were circling to see us,” Mitchner said. “I went outside and caught (a sheriff’s deputy) in the driveway running my license plate.”
Mitchner said the most alarming instances have happened in their kids’ classrooms.
Two years ago, his oldest son George was a sophomore at Forest Hills Central High School. Mitchner said George was slapped in the face by a white student. While the Mitchners don’t believe the slap itself was racially charged, they say the school’s response was disproportionately harsh.
In a police report, the slap was referred to as “play fighting” by a witness. The witness said George “overreacted and pushed the student back,” which George later denied to police. The police report shows the normal punishment for slapping another student would warrant a five-day suspension; however, it was suggested the student who slapped George only get detention.
Mitchner said he was shocked to see in the paperwork that there was a suggestion that his son receive a misdemeanor charge.
“The school officer that’s stationed at the school, he suggested that George gets a misdemeanor from that and he was the one who got slapped,” Mitchner said.
Ultimately, George was not charged.
Last school year, Mitchner’s daughter Raylin said she was told by another student they didn’t want to work with her because of the color of her skin.
The Mitchners also say there have been a number of incidents involving their youngest son L.J. Mitchner says the incident that sticks out to him most is hearing a teacher describe his then-7-year-old child as “standing over them.” The family says it made them think of stereotypes of Black men being inherently intimidating.
“It’s tiring and it’s defeating to have these conversations repeatedly,” Rashida Mitchner said as she sat next to her children.
The Mitchners say they believe these experiences point to a culture of racism. They say they are determined to stand their ground and force change.
“If we move, nobody learns from this lesson; I teach my kids to pack it up and run,” Landon Mitchner said.
The Mitchners, who were unsatisfied with the district’s handling of the incidents, filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
In the last two years, the department says students and faculty filed a total of four discrimination complaints against Forest Hills Public Schools. A total of 104 complaints were filed against 66 school districts across the state in the same time period.
The civil rights department says there are only five districts in the state with four or more civil rights complaints. In the last two years, FHPS had the most discrimination complaints of any West Michigan school district.
Superintendent Dan Behm says he cannot comment directly on incidents involving specific students.
He would say he knows kids and staff can come to school with preconceived notions. It’s a reality that prompted him to begin work to combat bias in Forest Hills Schools more than a decade ago.
“Racism is our country’s original sin and it continues to manifest itself in ways that are destructive, destructive to community,” Behm said. “We need every single child. We need every single person in this world to be able to live to their full potential and we feel like as a school system we can be a solution for the brokenness.”
The district, the student body of which is almost 80% white, now has teachers go through diversity training and every semester offers a program it calls the Institute for Healing Racism for students, parents and staff.
High school students have the choice of adding a Global Learners Initiative course that focuses on other cultures and antiracism. The district also added the Global Learners Library at Forest Hills Northern High School. It is filled with writers from marginalized groups and historical literature.
“My experience in Forest Hills would not be unique to any other African American student in a predominantly white area,” said Forest Hills alum Evan-Tarence Lauchie’, who now leads some of the district’s antiracism work.
Several students say the course work has empowered them to speak out when they see discrimination and given them better insight to the experiences of marginalized groups.
“I think what’s different about Forest Hills as opposed to other places, while there may be a culture of bias which is reflective of what our nation is, there is an intentional effort to combat that,” Lauchie’ said.
The district says it will continue supporting work like Lauchie’s until it is no longer needed.
“We’re not perfect but we are committed to growth,” Behm said. “We are committed to making sure that all our students have what they need to realize their own potential.”
The Mitchners say they hope shining a light on their experiences will prompt other families to take advantage of resources to undo bias so no other students of color have poor experiences.
“You can see it on the news, read about it, but this is everyday life that Black people have to deal with and it’s not something that we can walk away from. It’s our truth,” Rashida Mitchner said.
The Mitchner family says since its interview with News 8 for this report, they have continued to face microaggressions and are now considering pulling their students from the district.
Landon and Rashia Mitchner say their ultimate goal is for the district to make antiracism courses mandatory for all students and staff.
Their civil rights complaint remains under investigation.