Sommers Schwartz attorney Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller discusses the law firm’s next steps in pursuing a civil lawsuit against the former teacher and the associated school districts.

Sommers Schwartz attorney Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller discusses the law firm’s next steps in pursuing a civil lawsuit against the former teacher and the associated school districts.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Farmington Public Schools teacher accused of sexual misconduct

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published September 21, 2020

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FARMINGTON HILLS/LIVONIA — A Farmington Public Schools teacher was put on paid administrative leave Aug. 25 after allegations of sexual misconduct came to light from former students in the Clarenceville School District, in Livonia, from when the teacher was employed there.

At least eight people have come forward with allegations of grooming, harassment and sexual assault from the teacher, who most recently taught at North Farmington High School and Power Middle School, said Sommers Schwartz attorney Elaina Bailey, who is representing them alongside attorney Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller, also of Sommers Schwartz.

Former Clarenceville student Emmalee Forester first came forward with allegations against the teacher on Facebook Aug. 20. Soon afterward, a handful of other women came forward, some publicly and some who wished to remain anonymous, with their own stories.

Bailey said they all experienced the alleged sexual misconduct between the ages of 14 and 18. For many, she said, the grooming and harassment began in middle school.

 

Attorneys, former students speak out
On Sept. 9, Bailey and Esser-Weidenfeller, alongside Forester and six others, held a press conference at the Sheraton Detroit Novi Hotel.

In addition to being employed with Farmington Public Schools and the Clarenceville School districts, Bailey said, they’ve learned the teacher was also associated with Troy Athens High School (the attorneys also represent a former student from Troy Athens who alleges sexual assault in 2005, when the student was 16 years old), the Metropolitan Detroit Youth Chorus, Crescent Academy in Southfield, Summit Academy in Romulus, Madison High School in Madison Heights, Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills and the University of Michigan’s summer vocal academy of music.

A pattern emerged when talking with the former students, Bailey said.

“Many of the survivors were experiencing a loss of a parent, a divorce in the home or an otherwise tumultuous home life at that time,” she said.

“He would make sexually suggestive and explicit comments to them about the way they were dressed, the way those clothes looked on their bodies and how that made him feel. ... He would find ways to brush up against them with his groin, and to touch them on their inner thighs, their arms and on their lower backs,” Bailey said.

“He would invite these teenage girls to his home and ask them to clean as a way to make some extra money. He would also encourage them to download different applications on their phones, like Snapchat and Telegram, so that the messages and videos would delete at a time that he would set.” She said he would send the girls naked pictures of his genitals and videos of him fondling himself. “Others were sexually assaulted when they were minors.”

 

Farmington Public Schools responds
In a statement released Aug. 26, Farmington Public Schools administrators said they learned of the social media posts alleging misconduct Aug. 21. Those posts “were promptly referred to our Human Resources Department, who immediately initiated an interval review,” the statement reads.

From there, the district placed the teacher on paid administrative leave, stating the leave was to prioritize students’ safety and ensure a due process. District administrators forwarded the reports to the appropriate agencies, including law enforcement, the statement reads.

“While it is human nature to speculate, question and discuss allegations when these types of things arise, these activities are not helpful to the investigations or the persons involved,” the statement continues. “Out of respect for the rights of everyone involved, we emphasize that, in unusual cases like this, it is important not to make judgements or reach conclusions until all investigations are completed.”

A follow-up statement Sept. 11 stated that “at this time, we do not have any reason to believe that any of the sexual misconduct allegations involve any FPS student, past or present,” and that the district’s internal investigation was ongoing.

District administrators pointed to board policies and Title IX Coordinator Tyrone Weeks as avenues for people to report any concerning conduct.

“Our top priority is the physical safety and emotional health and well-being of our students. The district also respects the courage and willingness of the non-FPS former students who have come forward to report and were the subject of recent media coverage,” the Sept. 11 statement reads. Read the district’s full statements at farmington.k12.mi.us.

Farmington Hill Police Chief Jeff King said his department doesn’t currently have an active investigation open and has not received any reports.

The teacher could not be reached for comment by press time. Farmington Public Schools did not respond to follow-up questions by press time.

 

‘I had a school district that failed me’
Forester said her experiences with the teacher started at 14 years old when she became involved with the varsity choir at Clarenceville High School. That same year, in the fall, Forester experienced the passing of her stepfather. Grief stricken, she said, that’s when the alleged misconduct began.

“Looking back now, this is when the grooming started. The supportive talks, the treats, the over-the-top favoritism. This is how he got me, as well as many others, to trust him. It was like feeding candy to a baby,” she said.

Forester said the unwanted advances and comments only grew worse as she turned 15, 16 and 17 years old. She said sexual comments and sexual touching became part of her “everyday school routine, which (he) would respond with a simple, ‘Oops, I’m sorry that was an accident,’ with a wink following.

“It was never an accident. Never,” she said.

Forester said she went to the high school principal and her counselor, and she was assured by the principal that something would be done and they would look into it.

“Nothing happened. Nothing changed,” she said.

“I’ve only very recently come to realize what was done to me by (the teacher). I wasn’t wrong. I just had a school district that failed me. Now I’ve come to learn, it’s failed many of us,” Forester said. “We need justice. We will no longer let anyone silence us. We are so strong now, and we always have been, but now we’re ready.”

The Clarenceville School District released a statement Aug. 21 stating the district “followed its established policies, worked with the appropriate authorities and sought to respond both compassionately and in a fashion that reflected due process for everyone concerned when the concerns were originally raised and fully investigated.”

Esser-Weidenfeller doesn’t believe that’s the case.

“Based on what we know so far, no one did that. We haven’t seen it. (The former students) haven’t seen it,” she said. “I would urge these districts, if they conducted such an investigation, to release every scrap of paper they have reflecting the complaints they received and the investigation they had.”

Follow-up questions to Clarenceville School District Superintendent Paul Shepich were acknowledged with responses stating the district cannot comment on pending litigation and that its established policies were followed when the initial reports arised. Read the district’s full statement at clarenceville.k12.mi.us.

 

A broken record
“Here we are again. We’ve seen sexual predators and the institutions that have protected them come to light year after year,” Esser-Weidenfeller said, adding that similar incidents are happening at every school level, from elementary to post-secondary. “We live in a culture where certain behavior is tolerated when it comes to our young women and our youth.”

Esser-Weidenfeller believes institutions need to be held accountable.

When nothing is done, “what message does that give young women, and what message, maybe more importantly, does that give the perpetrator? Here’s your free pass,” she said.

She also believes that teachers, counselors and security guards who may have witnessed the alleged misconduct should come forward to support the former students.

Sommers Schwartz intends to pursue a civil lawsuit against the teacher, as well as the Clarenceville School District and Troy Athens High School. She said she believes the Livonia and Troy police departments are currently conducting criminal investigations to pursue any possible criminal charges. There are no charges currently.

Livonia police could not be reached for comment by press time, and Troy police stated they do not have any active investigations open on the matter.

“Our message to him is, it’s coming to light. The truth is coming to light. You cannot hide from it. You cannot run from it. These women are strong, and I’m convinced there are others out there,” she said, encouraging others to speak up when ready. “You have our support. We are all with you.”

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