Detroit principal suspended, but not for allegations she’s created a toxic 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.
Stephanie Gaines, the principal at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, was suspended for 30 days unpaid for violating district procedures. (Christine Ferretti / Bridge Detroit)

The principal of Thirkell Elementary Middle-School was placed on a 30-day unpaid suspension this week following two investigations and months of complaints from staff, the district’s superintendent confirmed.

Principal Stephanie Gaines made the announcement Monday during an emergency meeting, according to Thirkell teacher Emma Howland-Bolton. A voice message also went out to the school community. Tammy Mitchell, Detroit Public Schools Community District assistant superintendent, will take over Gaines’ role for the remainder of the school year, which ends June 7. The principal is expected to return to her duties in July.

The suspension comes amid allegations Gaines has created an abusive and retaliatory atmosphere at Thirkell, such as denying students recess, locking restrooms, not providing teachers and staff enough support, and making parents and community partners feel unwelcome, according to testimony from current and former staff members.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told BridgeDetroit that Gaines’ suspension was not related to tensions with staff or recess and student bathroom issues but was due to a recently completed DPSCD investigation.

BridgeDetroit emailed and messaged Gaines multiple times for comment, but she did not respond.

Thirkell staff began speaking out in March about Gaines and the school’s environment at the monthly school board meeting and presented the district with the testimony and a letter of no confidence that they said was signed by several staff members.

The following month, the district began investigating allegations made against Gaines by interviewing staff at Thirkell along with investigating separate allegations, Vitti said at a board meeting.

While most of the allegations were unfounded, Vitti said, the latest investigation revealed Gaines did not follow district procedure for four incidents:

  • Failing to report to the district when a student brought a Taser to school and then returning the Taser to the student.
  • Having students support the cafeteria staff by delivering food to classrooms and paying them for their support.
  • Not reporting in a timely manner an employee who was suspected of being under the influence.
  • Releasing a student to a parent who was not the approved caretaker.

“Principal Gaines has owned her mistakes,” Vitti said. “She has also established a track record of improvement at a school that is challenging. She wants to continue the challenge of improving the school for students and improving her relationships with staff. She will be provided this opportunity after her suspension.”

Howland-Bolton said the damage may already be done for staff members, as Gaines has created a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation, which has led to high turnover. Several grades have had three or four teachers this school year alone, she noted.

“If you’re someone’s favorite, if you’re ‘in’ with them, then you can do whatever you want. And if you’re not, then you are going to face very real professional repercussions for telling the truth about conditions under which students are learning and people are teaching and staff members are working,” Howland-Bolton said of Gaines. “It’s tragic to say this, but every year that I have taught has been the worst year in education so far. And that is so upsetting because the kids continue to be smart, funny, capable, and adaptable, and they deserve so much better.”

Fellow Thirkell teacher Mitzi Davis has also spoken out against Gaines and the district over allegations that administrators are not adequately trained. She joined Howland-Bolton during the public comment period at a recent school board meeting.

“Stop throwing all these administrators into these buildings that are not ready to give us good, trained, and qualified administrators and watch how well the buildings run,” she said at the meeting.

A culture of fear and retaliation

Howland-Bolton has been a DPSCD teacher for 14 years, including four at Thirkell. She said Gaines hired her and things seemed fine at first.

But Howland-Bolton said she began to have negative interactions with Gaines, including in the fall of 2021 during a staff meeting.

She had concerns over a line in the school pledge and asked Gaines about it.

“The principal paused for a beat, and then she looked up and was like, ‘Well, you’re not supposed to have an air conditioning unit in your classroom, so we’re going to take that away today,’” Howland-Bolton said. “And the whole room was completely silent.”

Howland-Bolton was able to smooth things over with Gaines and keep her air conditioning unit, but reached out to her union representative at the Detroit Federation of Teachers about her concerns with the principal.

When it comes to recess and bathrooms, the educator believes the issues started about five years ago. Howland-Bolton gives up her lunch break to provide her students recess.

However, Vitti has said at board meetings that there is recess happening at Thirkell.

Howland-Bolton said she stays at Thirkell because it’s her neighborhood school and she plans to teach there until she’s “old and gray.”

“I am doing the job that I want to do and that’s all I want to do,” she said. “I don’t wanna have to go to board meetings and say bad things about my school, which I love. And it’s frustrating to me that … we have to fight tooth and nail collectively to try and change the conditions under which students are learning and teachers are teaching.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct how long ago it was that Emma Howland-Bolton said issues related to recess and bathrooms began.

Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at mwalker@bridgedetroit.com.

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