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Mt. Morris Twp. MI–Teachers from Westwood Heights Schools are criticizing an investigation into remarks made by a teacher they say were racist and homophobic.
A group of teachers initially called for an independent investigation into allegations against Academy West High School teacher, Janette Toal, and her husband, Westwood Heights Superintendent Peter Toal on March 3. The couple was accused of racist, homophobic, and hostile language and behavior.
Now the teachers want some resolution.
The teachers rallied at a board of education meeting July 14 to voice their complaints. With their attorney, Trachelle Young, teachers told board members the investigation has taken too long, there has been a lack of communication from the board regarding the investigation, and they want an update specifically on the investigation into Peter Toal.
“We respect the process, but anybody who doesn’t think that the four months we’ve given you is not being patient, I don’t know what to tell you, because I think it’s being more than patient,” Young said. “I want the board to know if nothing has been indicated to us within that time frame, then we may take action, because we will not go into the next school year with the anxiety level that my clients are suffering from the unknown, from not knowing what to expect.”
On June 28, the board released a letter to Young stating that Janette Toal violated only one board policy concerning the acceptable use of district-issued technology. The letter did not mention any updates on Peter Toal’s investigation or specify the board’s next actions.
Young said the board has shown a “lack of communication” since the start of the investigation and that she would give board members 30 days to “take action” and provide updates about allegations against Peter Toal. She declined to specify what action she plans to take, saying she’d rather see the board to take action than think that she is “threatening them.”
Maria Zitterkoph, the Career Development Facilitator at Academy West Adult Education, where Janette Toal was teaching at the time of the allegations, said that she and her coworkers struggled to feel “safe and secure” in their careers while working with Toal. She said she did not want to come forward but “knew that it needed to be done, and it was to protect our students from the discrimination and intolerance.”
“We tell each of our students that they matter, that they belong and that they can make a difference,” Maria Zitterkoph said. “For the past five months, our students and their families have been watching the news, reading the articles written, and sitting idly waiting for a decision to be made. We have let them down. By allowing this investigation to continue on for this long, we are telling our community that this negative behavior is tolerated and it’s accepted at Westwood Heights which, in my heart, I know that’s not the message that we want to spread in their community.”
Sarah Gekeler, a teacher at Academy West Adult Education, said that not having an answer on the outcome of the investigation has been “weighing on the staff” at Westwood Heights and has shortened the time the district may need to find new, highly qualified staff.
Chad Zitterkoph, the Adult Education Coordinator and teacher at Academy West Alternative Education, has attended the school district since he was five years old, and he has worked for the district for 16 years. He said that the stress of the investigation has affected both his life in the classroom and his home life.
“I’ve spent countless hours speaking with lawyers and dealing with aspects of the investigation, instead of taking care of my responsibilities at home,” Chad Zitterkoph said. “Instead of being able to take the time to recharge from the most difficult school year any current teacher, any of us, have ever endured, I’m continuing to deal with the stress of not knowing what the next year is going to bring and what direction the district will be headed in terms of administration and leadership.”
Jessie Cloman Sr., President of Westwood Heights Schools Board of Education, asked for patience from the group of teachers and said that the board was “doing the best” they could.
“All things don’t happen when we want them to happen, but there is a man upstairs that is guiding it all, and it’ll happen when he says it’s time for it to happen,” Cloman said. “We’re just instruments trying to do the best we can for a district that we all love. One of the main things in the world is patience, which is a hard thing for all of us to have, but we have to find it. So if you would, look for it, find it, hold on to it, and we will be there soon.”
Westwood Heights Schools Board of Education stated that they do not have any further comments in response to the attorney on July 14.