Enrollment appears to be nosediving in a Michigan school district where several teachers publicly supported a former colleague who admitted having sex with a middle school student.
The student body count in the West Branch-Rose City district, in northeast Michigan is down unofficially some 87 students following a tumultuous summer in which angry parents blasted seven teachers for writing letters in support of former teacher Neal Erickson. The letters urged a judge to be lenient in sentencing Erickson, who admitted to sexual misconduct with an underage, male student from 2006 to 2009. When the school board declined to take action against the teachers, many parents vowed to pull their kids out of the public schools, which have a total enrollment of just over 2,000.
“I can’t speculate as to why the students have left, but there were certainly parents who vocalized that they were pulling their children out of school because of the teacher’s support,” West Branch-Rose City School Superintendent Daniel Cwayna told FoxNews.com. “We addressed the issue as best we could without infringing upon the teacher’s first amendment rights. There’s only so much we can do.”
Lower enrollment will cost the district under the state's funding formula. And it could get even worse, if other parents simply opt to keep their kids home on Sept. 25, when the official headcount is carried out. The school district stands to lose as much as $600,000 in state funding.
“It’s absolutely appalling, these … teachers who wrote the letters. How someone can support a child molester … I don’t understand,” Sam Cottle, a local resident with relatives who work in the school district, said in an article published by EAGnews. “None of these people have written a letter of support for the mom, dad, or son. What does that tell you?"
Many have also called for the resignation of board member Michael Eagan because he sat with the teachers and Erickson’s family during his sentencing.
At a public meeting held in August, many in the community came to discuss the issue with the school board in an open forum. Nearly 200 people showed up and shouted at Eagan from the crowd.
“You are tearing our community up. Do you realize that?” Carol Smith, whose daughter attends the high school asked of Eagan during the meeting.
Eagan has refused to resign, prompting opponents to mount a recall. But Eagan told the Detroit News that he was there to support Erickson’s family and had no regrets in doing so.
“I would still support the family. That’s who I am,” he told the newspaper.
Erickson, 38, was originally investigated last October once allegations that he sexually molested the then 14-year-old boy surfaced and was eventually arrested in December 2012. Erickson pleaded guilty May 8, and asked for a lenient sentence, citing "stress" and financial hardship for his family.
Although his attorney contended that the victim, who was 14 years old when the sexual incidents began, did not suffer severe psychological damage, the boy's family has said the incident left him depressed and angry.
Parents already angry that a child molester had been employed at their children's school were even angrier when his colleagues went to bat for him.
“Neal made a mistake," schoolteacher Sally Campbell wrote in a letter to the judge. "He allowed a mutual friendship to develop into much more. He realized his mistake and ended it years before someone anonymously sent something to the authorities which began this legal process.”
Another teacher, Amy Huber Eagan, wrote, “I am asking that Neal be given the absolute minimum sentence, considering all the circumstances surrounding this case. I am also hoping that he can stay remanded to custody in the Ogemaw County Jail and not be sent to a prison facility.”
Teacher Harriet Coe weighed in with her letter.
“Neal has plead (sic) guilty for his one criminal offense but he is not a predator,” teacher Harriett Coe wrote. “This was an isolated incident. He understands the severity of his action and is sincere in his desire to make amends.”
But on July 10, the judge brushed the letters aside and handed down a sentence of 15 to 30 years in prison. And he had strong words for Erickson's colleagues.
“I’m appalled and ashamed that the community could rally around, in this case, you,” Circuit Court Judge Michael Baumgartner said towards Erickson during his sentencing. “What you did was a jab in the eye with a sharp stick to every parent who trusts a teacher.”