Oxford school district reverses course, hires firms for independent review of shooting

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Oxford Board of Education holds a special meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on May 17, 2022.
Oxford Board of Education holds a special meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on May 17, 2022.

Oxford Community Schools' board reversed its decision to delay an independent review into events surrounding the Nov. 30 Oxford High shooting after community outcry, and agreed upon firms to conduct it, during a special board meeting Tuesday.

The seven-member school board voted unanimously to hire Varnum, a Grand Rapids-based law firm, and Guidepost Solutions, an independent investigations firm based in New York, to conduct the review. University of Michigan's Board of Regents hired Guidepost to help address the university's response to sexual assault complaints in 2020, following multiple scandals.

During a special meeting Tuesday night, board members said they heard community members in earlier meetings.

"We can't wait any longer to get an independent understanding of what happened that day," said Tom Donnelly, president of Oxford's board. "And as our community has been telling us from day one, neither can you."

Oxford School Board President Thomas Donnelly, right, speaks next to superintendent Kevin Weaver during an Oxford Board of Education special meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on May 17, 2022.
Oxford School Board President Thomas Donnelly, right, speaks next to superintendent Kevin Weaver during an Oxford Board of Education special meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on May 17, 2022.

The board had previously decided to delay the review until criminal and civil litigation wrapped up, which could take several years. A group of Oxford parents and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel objected to such a lengthy delay, accusing the district of trying to shield itself from potential liability.

Nessel has offered twice to conduct the third-party review with the resources of her own office, so the district would not have to bear the cost of the review. The school district has now turned her down twice, opting instead for an outside firm.

More: Legal experts, parents: Oxford district's decision to delay review in school shooting now is a mistake

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The board first committed to a review in December, shortly after the shooting that left four students dead, six students injured and a teacher injured. But by early May, the board hadn't yet commissioned a review and parent calls for an immediate review were growing.

After the board committed to a review, students and parents who spoke at Tuesday's special meeting largely said they were still disappointed by the board, and did not feel members were truly listening.

One parent who identified himself as Jared said his son was shot during the tragedy, and said parents are "waiting for answers" around what happened on Nov. 30. He questioned the board's refusal to allow Nessel's office to conduct a review.

"I haven't been able to talk because I'm angry, someone tried to murder my son and a lot of innocent kids," he said. "You say you want to do a third-party review. What changed? ... Where were you four months ago?"

Lori Bourgeau, an Oxford parent organizing with a group called Change 4 Oxford, wrote in a text message that she's thankful the board will commission a review, but is skeptical that the review will be transparent.

"I believe it will be slanted to point to the gun and shooter as the cause and not review each and every point of intervention as that would result in showing every area the school holds liability," she wrote. "At the same time, I appreciate them doing something."

Oxford School Board Trustee Dan D'Alessandro speaks during an Oxford Board of Education special meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on May 17, 2022.
Oxford School Board Trustee Dan D'Alessandro speaks during an Oxford Board of Education special meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on May 17, 2022.

The board also agreed upon a temporary memorial for the four students who were killed in November's shooting, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin and Hana St. Juliana. The temporary memorial will feature the students' images in Oxford High's performing arts center.

Reina St. Juliana, Hana's sister, said the location of the temporary memorial does not align with what students want, because students rarely visit the center.

"All four families want it in a visible area," she said. "We agree that we do not want it in a location that is removed from students and staff. ... Their smiles do not deserve to be hidden in an area that is next to a ticket booth. ...You have failed us yet again."

Contact Lily Altavena: laltavena@freepress.com or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Oxford school district reverses course, hires firms for independent review