Detroit principal under fire from staff over hostile work environment

A large red brick building with a sign in a grassy field in the front and a blue and cloudy sky in the background.
The principal at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in the Detroit Public Schools Community School District has faced allegations from staff that she has created a toxic work environment. (Christine Ferretti / Bridge Detroit)

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Detroit school district officials will be interviewing staff at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School to address complaints against the principal from staff members who say she has created an abusive and retaliatory atmosphere at the school.

Many of the complaints against Principal Stephanie Gaines were aired by staff members Tuesday during the public comment session of a Detroit school board meeting. Staff had previously presented the district with a letter of no confidence they said was signed by every staff member. At least one staff member, though, told Chalkbeat Friday morning that she did not sign the letter. Later in the day, that staff member and six others signed a statement of support for Gaines.

“I have never been in such a toxic environment,” Mitzi Davis, a Thirkell teacher, told school board members. “We are tired of coming to work in an environment of hostility, intimidation, discrimination, and retaliation.”

Among the allegations aired by staff Tuesday and in the no-confidence letter: They said Gaines retaliates against staff who raise concerns about her actions, has made homophobic comments, keeps student bathrooms locked — allowing only scheduled bathroom breaks — and does not allow recess.

The staff members say that Gaines recently told a Muslim teacher that she could resign if she didn’t like being denied accommodations during Ramadan; that she frequently assigns the dean and assistant principal lunch duty, making it difficult for them to carry out their duties; and that she has made it clear to parents and community partners that they are not welcome in the school.

The names of the staff members who signed the no-confidence letter were withheld because most of the employees fear further retaliation, the letter said. Supporting information with the letter included testimonies from current and former Thirkell employees. It also included a list of community partners that the letter writers say will no longer work with Thirkell.

The lack of names on the letter, though, makes it difficult to investigate those specific allegations, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The allegations “will be investigated by human resources if individuals put their name to the allegations, so the individual can be interviewed about the allegation,” Vitti said.

None of the allegations, Vitti said, would be investigated by the district’s inspector general, because they are not linked to fraud. Nor, Vitti said, do the allegations rise to the level of requiring the district to remove Gaines or put her on administrative leave.

Still, he said “there are certainly concerns about general climate and culture, interpersonal engagement, overall feedback, but again, we need people to put their names to the allegation.”

In the meantime, Vitti said, the district is interviewing Thirkell staff “to gain their sense individually of the climate and culture of the building.”

Board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo also said she is concerned about the number of complaints and questioned how the district could not see it as a “hostile work environment.”

“It’s insulting to have that many educators — white, Black and everything in between — all saying the same thing about the leadership at Thirkell,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “That’s a problem. I’m hopeful that we don’t just brush this under the rug, that we get some timeline in place of how long staff has to deal with that.”

In a statement to Chalkbeat, Gaines said: “If I have offended anyone as I have pushed for higher expectations for students, then I deeply apologize. I look forward to listening and reflecting upon how anyone has been disrespected by my leadership and look forward to working together to continue our improvement.”

Gaines said that when she arrived at Thirkell in 2019, “there wasn’t a focus on student teaching and learning.” She said the school was once slated for closure, and was identified as part of the state’s intervention program for the worst-performing schools in the state. The school has since exited that status.

“Thirkell serves some of the most disadvantaged and challenged students and families in the country. I come to work each day to give them an opportunity to succeed in this hard world,” Gaines said.

On Friday afternoon, seven teachers sent a letter to Vitti challenging the allegations about a hostile work environment at Thirkell. In the letter, Kelly Townsel, the school’s math master teacher, said one of the union building representatives who spoke out against Gaines decorated the principal’s office for her birthday. She said the school has had a family atmosphere until the allegations were made.

“Principal Gaines has turned around our school for students, staff, families, and the community. She is data driven, passionate for the students and collaborative with the staff,” she and the six others said in the letter. “Change is hard and uncomfortable for some people. We believe the disgruntled staff are harboring bitter feelings because the former principal was asked to leave. We have been welcomed by Principal Gaines since we have been at Thirkell. We may not agree with every decision that she has made but we trust and respect her leadership at Thirkell.:

On Tuesday, Thirkell teacher Emma Howland-Bolton said that even with the working conditions in the school, “kids and teachers are accomplishing amazing things.”

“I wish I was here today to regale you with those tales. Instead, I’m here to ask you to just remove some of the roadblocks in our way,” Howland-Bolton said. “The conditions at Thirkell are not just the result of the principal’s pattern of retaliation and abuse or her lack of training or her lack of understanding of childhood development, but they are a product of the district’s neglect.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new information about the number of staff who signed the letter of no-confidence, and after a new letter was sent to the district by teachers who say they support Gaines.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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