Second investigation into South choir program underway

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 4, 2020

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — A second investigation regarding issues within the Grosse Pointe South High School choir program has begun.

Last month, district officials placed choir director Christopher Pratt on a three-day suspension Jan. 21-23 after conducting an investigation regarding complaints about the program. As of press time, Pratt has since returned to the classroom.

At the end of January, an attorney from Lusk Albertson in Detroit was hired to do what Superintendent Gary Niehaus described as “a like investigation to affirm the findings” of the first investigation.

In a follow-up email to Niehaus as to why Pratt was suspended, his response was, “Details of findings are not normally shared.” Niehaus discussed the matter during the Grosse Pointe Public School System’s Jan. 27 Board of Education meeting.

“I think we continue to look at where we are with the Grosse Pointe South choir. One of the things that has been alleged is that … we mishandled or we didn’t get the investigation right the first time,” Niehaus said. “Today we talked to a third-party attorney that will be in on Thursday to begin to do a full investigation.”

Niehaus indicated that the investigation will include the same or similar witnesses from the first investigation.

“If there are others we need to interview, we will,” Niehaus said. There also are plans for school officials to meet with South choir boosters “to talk about how we make amends to the program to make it the best program it can possibly be.”

The Grosse Pointe Times contacted Pratt via email for comment regarding the matter.

“Thank you for reaching out,” Pratt said in an email response. “I have been given an administrative directive not to speak about the days that I was gone. I do, however, value and love my students and their families and will continue to do so.”

When he was suspended, the petition “Overturn Christopher Pratt’s Suspension” circulated online via the website www.change.org. According to the website, Pratt was placed on an unpaid suspension for a “failure” to oversee a colleague — reportedly a choreographer not employed by the district, but through an independent contract. The website says that the choreographer “was wrongly accused of bullying students.”


Parents react
During the Jan. 27 meeting’s second hearing of the public, several parents spoke out regarding South’s choir program. Some were in favor of Pratt’s suspension, while others were not. Board President Margaret Weertz had asked that names of staff members not be mentioned.

Parents Luis and Melissa Garcia and their son, Emilio, all addressed the board regarding Emilio’s experience in choir. Emilio Garcia joined the South choir in the fall of 2016 and left within two months because of the program’s leadership.

“I’m here to thank Superintendent Niehaus and HR Director (Nicole) Pilgrim for the difficult but long overdue investigation into Grosse Pointe South choir,” Luis Garcia said. “It’s been a long and festering, abusive environment. … It’s a terrible environment.

“Students and alumni are finally speaking up. Our students were abused by adults with bullying and petty jealousies that come from immature and weak adults in power,” Luis Garcia said. “The choir director led and encouraged the ostracizing and harassment … when my child left choir. The current actions, basically a suspension, is nowhere near enough. This person must be dismissed and his friend, the unvetted winner of a gold-plated, no-bid, indefinite contract who is not an employee of the schools but has direct access to our children and abuses them, this person must be banished from our school system.”

Choir parent Michelle Conlan voiced her concerns on how the situation was handled and felt that it was the students who were penalized.

“You, without trying to find out what was going on, took a situation that was sensitive and you impacted and punished the entire group of choir students,” Conlan said. “You looked at a few people saying something, and you turned around and punished every single kid in that program.

“Your timing was unbelievable. There are shows that have to be had. … These kids need to practice and they need their leadership. If there is a problem, protocol needs to be followed, and protocol was not followed,” Conlan said. “This is just another example of how you pull an instructor without proof, just accusation.”

Parent Michelle White shared her daughter’s experience. While she was never in South’s choir, her daughter was in the “That’s Entertainment” shows regularly and one musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

“I’m here to thank the administration for suspending South’s choir director for three days for failure to sign the letter of reprimand. I can tell you with great certainty that the administration did the right thing in disciplining the choir director,” White said. “In 2016, the choreographer verbally abused and publically humiliated our daughter in front of the entire cast of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’ and the choir director watched it all go down and never stepped in.”

That year, White and her daughter met with the school principal on the issue.

“Fast forward to now, and the principal and the rest of the administration are listening and taking seriously my concerns and the concerns of others regarding the safety of students in this program,” White said.

“I’m here today in support of our choir director and our choreographer,” said parent Michelle Petropoulos, who has one child still at South and two children who have graduated. “My daughter, my middle child, will tell you that these two guys changed her life for the better. The investigation was flawed. No evidence has been shared that supports findings for suspensions.

“My concerns are just, ‘What’s the goal here?’ I do see some sight has been lost for the 100-plus students in that program. My daughter lived and breathed it, and it was an incredibly good experience,” Petropoulos said.

Cynthia Fox-Aboukasm, whose three daughters were involved in the choir, theater and musical productions while at South, spoke on behalf of the program. All three daughters had a positive experience while in the South choir program.

“My family is so grateful to these two professional gentlemen for their outstanding teaching and life skills that choir and the musical program provided,” Fox-Aboukasm said. “Skills such as confidence, time management, professionalism, taking constructive criticism and growing from that critique.

“The choir classes, the shows, the travel, the competition and the sense of accomplishment were some of the highlights and joys of my children’s years in high school,”  Fox-Aboukasm said. “They had a safe place and a family. These gentlemen are top. They’re kind and they are fair. We never, ever have heard or witnessed any sort of bullying or inappropriate behavior from Mr. Pratt or the choreographer.”