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Oxford Community Schools hires outside firms for third-party review of shooting

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Paul Sancya | AP Photo
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Students hug at a memorial at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan, Wednesday, December 1, 2021.

The Oxford Community Schools district agreed upon outside firms for a third-party review of the events surrounding the Oxford High School shooting in November, during a special board meeting Tuesday evening.

The school board unanimously voted to hire Varnum, a Grand Rapids-based law firm, and Guidepost Solutions to conduct the review.

This is a reversal of the school board’s original decision to delay an investigation until litigation is resolved, and comes after the school district twice turned down Attorney General Dana Nessel’s offer to conduct a third-party investigation free of charge.

“Since our statements in December, we understand that waiting for the civil and criminal trials to end first does not serve this community well,” Tom Donnelly, president of the school board, said at the meeting. “We can't wait any longer to get an independent understanding of what happened that day. And as our community has been telling us from day one, neither can you.”

School board member Dan D’Alessandro spoke about the board’s decision during the meeting. “I want to apologize to anybody that felt as though we weren't doing our due diligence,” he said. “Quite the contrary. If you all understood the amount of balls that are moving in this game called the legal system, you would all be shocked.”

Concerns around transparency, schools and attorney-client privilege

Nessel said in a statement Wednesday, "We have seen this time and time again — outside firms hired by school boards will maintain attorney-client privilege with elected members and therefore the ability to stop short of full transparency.”

The outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, has been hired by the University of Michigan to guide its response to sexual assault complaints.

Elizabeth Abdnour, an attorney, has been similarly critical of outside firms' ability to objectively investigate these institutions, echoing Nessel’s criticism.

Abdnour specializes in helping victims of sexual harassment and other civil rights violations at the college and university level and in K-12 school settings, helping special education students receive the services they are due under federal law.

She said if a company is paid by an institution directly, there’s a possible lack of objectivity. “Because when you're producing work for somebody, you want them to be satisfied with that work,” Abdnour said. “Whereas if the attorney general's office had done the investigation, then they would not have any concerns about whether they're going to get paid or not based on… the outcome.”

Some Oxford community members also criticized the decision at the board’s special meeting Tuesday evening, questioning why the district chose to pay an outside firm over the attorney general’s office. Some parents and students who were at the school board meeting questioned why the board opted to pay outside firms rather than accept the attorney general's offer to investigate.

A temporary memorial, that students say, is tucked away

During the same meeting, the board was criticized for its placement of the temporary memorial to the four students killed in November’s shooting, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin and Hana St. Juliana, in the high school’s performing art’s center. The memorial will feature photos of the students.

Many said students rarely visit the location and that the memorial should be in a more prominent area. Reina St. Juliana, Hana's sister, urged the board not to move forward on the location until students, staff and families are heard, saying that all four families want the memorial in a visible area.

“The decision of the placement of the temporary memorial should not be the decision of the administration or school board who does not walk the halls every day, who did not know the light Hana, Justin, Tate and Madison carried,” she said. “You cannot honestly say you are considering and thinking of the 1,800 students when you fail to even ask or listen.”