#cyberbullying | #cyberbully | South choir choreographer removed from district programs

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — An independent investigator hired by the Grosse Pointe Public School System to look into the behavior of two adults associated with Grosse Pointe South High School’s choir program — director Christopher Pratt and choreographer Andy Haines — recommended removing Haines from the program and reexamining the role of the Grosse Pointe South choir boosters. No disciplinary action was recommended against Pratt.

This photo of Andy Haines with members of South’s choir accompanied a petition to reinstate Haines. Courtesy photo

Haines was contracted annually by the booster club, a parent organization providing financial support to the choir program. 

GPPSS Superintendent Gary Niehaus informed parents and students of the decision in an email June 24.

“After discussion with our legal counsel and others, I decided to accept Mr. (Kevin) Sutton’s recommendations, and as a result, Mr. Haines will no longer be associated with the South choir program or any other district-affiliated program,” Niehaus wrote, adding he asked Jon Dean, deputy superintendent for human resources and educational services, to work with South Principal Moussa Hamka and Pratt to obtain the services of another choreographer.

Findings

Two things can be true at the same time, Sutton, managing partner with Lusk Albertson PLC, concluded in his executive summary, obtained by the Grosse Pointe News through a Freedom of Information Act request. Many current and former students had a positive experience as part of South’s choir program; many current and former students had a negative experience as part of South’s choir program.

“Moreover, simply because some students had a positive experience, it does not eliminate from the realm of possibilities a student having a negative experience in the GPSHS choir program,” Sutton wrote in the report.

According to the executive summary, multiple current and former students “expressed concerns about the manner in which Mr. Haines conducted himself … (describing) behavior that was condescending, mean, coarse and rude.” Also of concern were unrealistic expectations and “unnecessarily harsh” feedback.

“Students discussed name-calling that, while not overtly insensitive, was less than professional for an adult placed in a role of trust and given an audience with minors.”

‘Beloved by students’

Support for Haines from former and current students and parents of the program poured in via emails to the board and administration — many copied to the Grosse Pointe News — social media posts and public comments at a special meeting of the Board of Education June 29.

“He was beloved by students, yet the district fired him on the grounds of harassing and bullying students,” rising South junior Ally Strehlke wrote in an email. “As someone who has spent two years in the program already, I have never witnessed such bullying and/or harassment.”

Parents and students related personal experiences when Haines demonstrated support and caring.

“Mr. Haines wasn’t a choreographer, he was a life skill builder, a kid’s biggest supporter, friend, manufacturer of personal excellence, oh yeah, and he could dance a little,” South parent Sheri Rieth wrote in an email.

Rieth described how Haines kept in touch with South’s choir seniors through the COVID-19 shutdown.

“He taped their workouts on his own time to keep the kids upbeat and engaged during a time that was probably one of the most difficult for many,” she wrote. “He always had a sympathetic and positive message for them. He drove over three hours to attend the South choir senior awards night, which was not organized by the school. He spoke with each senior and encouraged them to grow and be strong from this time, choking down tears, knowing what they had lost the last couple of months. Then he got right back in his car and traveled the long distance to his home in Ohio.”

Andy Haines, left, and Christopher Pratt at the 2019 Fame National Show Choir Finals in Waukegan, Ill.

South 2019 graduate Maya Petropoulos wrote, “I am especially shocked that such an institution would choose not to listen to the majority, who love and praise Andy not just as a teacher, but as a friend. … We won nationals because of Andy. Plain and simple. He pushes, drives and motivates all of us. I would maybe suggest that you advise those who don’t like the program, not to participate. These kids are devastated, as am I. Choir absolutely defined my high school experience and made me discover my career path. I would not be where I am or who I am without this program. It is a complete disservice to rob these kids of the same experiences I had.”

A ‘polarizing figure’

Some investigation witnesses described Haines as a “polarizing figure.” While many attributed their success in the arts to him and his support, others indicated they withdrew from the choir and related activities “because of Mr. Haines’ conduct and unrealistic expectations.”

Complaints about Haines’ conduct prior to the current inquiry had been reported to the booster club, according to multiple witnesses. While the “booster club indicated that those concerns were investigated and that such investigation included conversations with Mr. Haines,” Haines claimed no student or parent “ever made him aware of any student concern.”

Multiple witnesses described Haines as mocking students who left the program and “passively encouraging other students to follow suit.” For example, when one student’s name was spoken, Haines “would allegedly mock spit and comment ‘we don’t say that name.’” When questioned about this incident, Haines denied he ever spat and “indicated that while he may have expressed sadness that the student left the choir program, he did not encourage students to not ‘say that name.’”

Multiple witnesses also questioned the influence of the booster club over the choir program.

“There appeared to be a strong sentiment, seemingly well-founded, that a handful of booster club members were exerting extreme influence over the operations of the GPSHS choir program,” Sutton wrote. “The influence was clearly tied to finances and individual contributions, which finance the employment of Mr. Haines and a secretary for Mr. Pratt.”

Internal investigation

Sutton’s investigation confirmed findings of an earlier investigation conducted in the fall of 2019, concluding Haines violated board policy 5517 on bullying and cyberbullying, which includes directly or indirectly interfering with a student’s educational opportunities and having a substantially detrimental effect on a student’s physical or mental health.

The internal investigation by Human Resources Director Nicole Pilgrim and Hamka was initiated after two South students came forward with complaints alleging Haines engaged in “harassing type behavior and such conduct was condoned or ignored by Mr. Pratt,” according to the report.

Haines was suspended for three days in December 2019, and Pratt was suspended for four days in January for refusing to sign a letter of reprimand against Haines.

“Your booster board has exposed their ‘conclusion’ of bullying as unreliable because it is based on a highly flawed investigation that included investigator bias,” 2019-20 booster club co-president Laura Sanom wrote in a Jan. 23 email to choir families.

At the Jan. 27 regular meeting of the board, Niehaus announced he was in the process of engaging Lusk Albertson to conduct a full third-party investigation.

“We want to protect all of our kids. We want to provide a safe, secure environment for them to be able to do their best and perform their best,” he said.

In his June 24 email, Niehaus wrote, “The initial report resulted in complaints by members of the choir boosters and others that the internal investigation was flawed, and that the recommendations from that investigation could not be justified.”

Retaining Sutton was in response to these complaints, he added.

‘Extensive input’

Sutton’s investigation included 20 individual interviews, completed either in person or by telephone, with five current or former South students, five parents of current or former choir students, seven district employees, including Pratt, two community members and Haines.

Sutton also received “extensive input” from students, parents and community members associated with the choir program, including multiple email statements, screenshots of social media posts and other accounts.

“The actions of the district administrators in this matter require investigation and oversight by the BOE,” Sanom wrote in a statement. “These administrators have deceived and lied to parents; they hired an attorney at public expense to give pretext to publicly brand a man a bully; they never told him a single specific complaint against him or gave him due process; they suspended him based on unspecified allegations in December and then invited him back to South to teach with no administration oversight; they have twice reneged on agreements with the choir boosters. If we cannot trust administration to act honorably and with good faith, how can we trust any of the big decisions they are making for this district?”

Pratt also responded to the administration’s decision with a statement.

“The nationally award-winning and internationally recognized Grosse Pointe South Choir has been a home for thousands of students to create, discover and find passion from highly dedicated and caring staff of educators since I first arrived at South in 2012,” he wrote. “Certainly the thousands of students who preceded my arrival — some now who are parents and choir volunteers — laid a legacy in their own right. Andy Haines has been a significant part of that success and award-winning tradition from the start.”

A personal view

South parent Michelle White, who related her daughter’s negative experience with Haines at the January board meeting, said while neither she nor her daughter was interviewed as part of Sutton’s investigation, she was not surprised by the outcome.

“It’s very clear the lawyer found abusive behavior and the administration is following the advice of a lawyer and it’s in the best interest of the school district from a liability standpoint,” she said. “But it’s also in the best interest of the students because that’s what school is about. It’s about educating and bringing them up. It’s not about shaming them.”

After the board meeting, White said she heard from many people who thanked her for speaking up and shared their own stories.

For White, the issue transcends her own daughter’s experience in 2016 to a larger, systemic issue with the long-standing culture of the program, which, in her view, includes a conflict of interest due to Pratt’s pre-existing relationship with Haines, lack of professional boundaries with students and parents demonstrated by Haines, and power imbalance created by the 200-member boosters club.

“I really do believe it comes down to boundaries and how much access certain parents have to teachers and how much reliance the teachers place on them to do the program,” White said. “It really comes down to conflicts of interest in terms of allowing teachers to treat each student equitably and fairly and meet the needs of every student. I think it’s impossible to do that when you don’t have boundaries.”

White described her daughter’s experience as “targeted humiliation that had nothing to do with correcting a student (or) helping a student be a better artist.” Her daughter reported the incident to Hamka because she knew it was wrong and didn’t want to “stand by and watch it happen to somebody else,” White said.

“Bullying is not OK no matter if some students can handle it and they can brush it off or, like in the case of my daughter, she could handle it, but she has a very strong moral compass and she knew it was so wrong for him to publicly humiliate her and do so in front of Mr. Pratt.”

“When it becomes a pattern, you can’t ignore it,” White said. “A lot of people have talked to me over the years and it’s a pattern.”

She also noted that the “lack of empathy” from parents whose children were not negatively impacted by their experiences with the choir program was “staggering.”

White is eager to break the cycle and create a more student-centered, inclusive program.

“I think they made the right choice,” White said. “And I think this is a wonderful opportunity for South students. I hope the district takes the opportunity to start fresh and really serve the young artists of this community.”

Summary of recommendations

  • Mr. Haines should no longer be permitted to participate with the GPSHS choir program or any district-affiliated program. … (T)he continued presence of Mr. Haines on school grounds with access to district students poses an unnecessary threat to students and represents a liability risk for the district. Moreover, the practice of contracting a choreographer by the booster club without district control and approval should be examined.
  • Mr. Pratt should be given explicit directives regarding the expectations, objectives and standards for the GPSHS choir program. In this regard, it is the opinion of the investigator that Mr. Pratt needs a significant “recalibration” regarding what the choir program stands for and the district’s ultimate responsibility for it. The investigation evidenced a need for a change in the culture of the program; that needs to start with Mr. Pratt. … Students should be pushed to be their best in any subject or activity, but that goal should not result in the agendas of overzealous parents or overeager students poisoning the valuable experience that an inclusive, supportive choir program can provide.
  • The booster club should be supporting the activities of the choir program, not operating the program. The investigator posits that much of the concern with the GPSHS choir program is rooted in the booster club. Started more than 20 years ago with pure intentions to provide necessary financial support to the choir program, the booster club has become a source of controversy within the community as a result of what appears to be an ability to wield unchecked power over the choir program. The investigator is left with little doubt that Mr. Pratt’s actions — and acts of omission — were premised on his fear of challenging the will of the booster club and, in particular, key financial contributors to same. After all, while an employee of the district, he receives significant compensation and support from the booster club. But the choir program belongs to the district, not the booster club. The current construction may make it difficult for Mr. Pratt to operate accordingly.

— from the Executive Summary, Grosse Pointe South High School choir investigation


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