Thursday, August 3, 2023

Letter to the Editor: A Tragedy at Ann Arbor Public Schools, and a Call for Accountability

Editor's Note: from time to time we make the decision to run a letter to the editor anonymously. In this case we are doing so due to the author's genuine fear of retaliation. 

Content Warning: This article contains references to physical abuse of a young child with autism in Ann Arbor Public Schools. Some of the links on this article also contain videos of the assault itself. 


A recent lawsuit against Ann Arbor Public Schools revealed that, in 2021 Rochanda Jefferson, a bus aide, assaulted a 7 year old boy with autism. This happened on an AAPS bus run by Durham School Services. There were multiple witness report yet the bus aide was allegedly allowed to continue to supervise him and other children for weeks after the incident. The district administration failed in its duty to report any suspicion of child abuse immediately. This crime, and the district's response, are evidence of a failure of leadership at a district level. We as a community must act and make changes to ensure it is never allowed to happen again. AAPS leadership may not have physically struck the child themselves, but they are accountable for their failure to act. 

There must be consequences for those who are in a position to have done more. Those who could have broken the chain of abuse but chose to remain silent, or worse, covered up or downplay the abuse. It is time to call upon Superintendent Jeanice Swift to resign, or if she refuses, be terminated for cause. The School Board, which has a duty to oversee the district's leadership, must act. To do so, they must hear from families and the AAPS community to make it clear we no longer find this leadership acceptable. 

The board can be contacted at The next meeting is on August 23rd at 6pm, 3700 Earhart Road, where the Board will perform an evaluation of Superintendent Swift's performance. Those wishing to provide public comment must sign up in advance at this site

Since the lawsuit was filed on July 26th, more information has continued to come out in various news reports, including this piece on WXYZ news (CW: contains video of assault), This Detroit Free Press story (CW: includes video of assault), and this MLive report. You can also read the court filings here.  

    An Overview of the Timeline of the District Response as alleged:

  • Since 2020 - Rochanda Jefferson is moved around on AAPS buses 3 times over a year and a half, once after threatening a teacher
  • 12/14/2021 - Jefferson, an aide on a special needs bus, assaults a young boy with autism, on a bus with other special needs students. 
  • 12/15/2021 - Multiple witnesses notify the staff and leadership at AAPS of the assault
  • 12/15/2021 - Staff notifies the principal at Carpenter Elementary by written report
  • 12/15/2021 - Report filed with Child Protective Services (CPS) by an unidentified person
  • 12/16/2021 - The child's teacher contacts mom to say she is unhappy that Jefferson remains on the child's bus
  • ~4 weeks later - AAPS administration reviews tape of assault and removes aide from bus, and files report with CPS
  • 1/18/2022 - Child's teacher emails Carpenter Elementary principal that she feels she can no longer keep the assault from the child's mother
  • 1/19/2022 - Carpenter Elementary Principal emails mother to notify her of "incidents" involving her son
  • 3/15/2022 - Police inform mother of assault charges, provide with video, the first time she learns the extent of the violence against her child.
  • 6/28/2023 - Jefferson is convicted of 4th degree Child Abuse in criminal court
  • 7/26/2023 - lawsuit naming AAPS, Durham School Services, and Principal filed

Note, nowhere in this timeline was the AAPS Board of Education notified of the assault. Multiple sources indicate that the Board was not notified until after the lawsuit was filed last month. 

Administrative Response: Smokescreens and Deception

Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift, the Ann Arbor Public Schools administration has developed an organizational culture of self-preservation. As many AAPS parents know, district press releases and emails are carefully crafted to say a lot of words without acknowledging any culpability when something goes wrong. In this particular circumstance, the press release states that AAPS "removed the offending individual from duty on the day the incident was observed on the video and contacted Child Protective Services immediately." Note the language, meant to imply the district acted immediately. In fact, the lawsuit reveals the district waited 5 weeks until it viewed the video of the incident, and forced this child, and the children who witnessed the violence witnesses, to ride the bus 17 more times with the now-convicted abuser. Rather than come clean and allow healing to begin, district leadership has doubled down, saying it followed appropriate procedures.

How can these procedures be appropriate if a child has been assaulted, it is reported immediately to leadership, and this child was forced to continue to ride the bus with his abuser 17 times?

Beyond the mishandling of the incident itself, there is the district's incredibly poor communication with the boy's mother, Jaime Nelson. This looks like it could be a deliberate coverup. After the assault occurred on December 14th, it took the administration until January 19th to communicate with Nelson. Even then, it was a smokescreen of half-truths. The Principal of Carpenter Elementary sent Nelson an email full of passive voice, avoiding blame and providing no hard details. The email said "there have been two incidents shared that have resulted in unsafe conditions" for her son. Nelson asked to see a copy of the video of the incident and was rebuffed, only getting access months later when police became involved.

And finally, district leadership has not given any indication that children affected by this assault, either directly or as witnesses, have been appropriately debriefed or counseled. After assaulting the young boy, Jefferson intimidated everyone else on the bus too, saying "That’s OK he’s going to jail. You’re old enough to go to jail. You don’t have to be no certain age to go to jail, they got children's jail for kids." A lot of children on the spectrum take these threats literally, especially at this early age. As witnesses to this violence, the district owes these families the clarity and resources they need to process what was likely a traumatic event. Has this taken place? The district press releases refer only to the investigation of the event itself, not how it helped children and families cope with the emotional fallout. Given the fact that the event was hidden from the boy's mother for weeks, it appears likely that the other families were also kept in the dark.

AAPS district leadership's mishandling of the aftermath of this assault has compounded the suffering of these vulnerable children and their families. Such a failure of leadership, and a failure of organizational culture, cannot go without consequences for those in whom we place such trust. When AAPS should have provided healing and clarity to the affected families, it sought to deny responsibility, bury the details, and eventually hide behind a smokescreen of carefully-worded press releases.

Either district leadership incorrectly believes it acted appropriately, or they are actively trying to escape blame. Both are unacceptable.

As news broke, it also became apparent that the School Board had been kept in the dark regarding this case. School Board President Rima Mohammad tweeted that the board "recently learned of the bus incident that occurred in December 2021," while trustee Jeff Gaynor asked questions in a Facebook post about why there was such a delay in reporting the incident:

A statement from Board President Rima Mohammad, alluding to being recently informed of the student's assault 

A statement from Trustee Jeff Gaynor, expressing frustration over the statement released by AAPS leadership

It is time to hold district leadership accountable. It's time Superintendent Swift stepped down. Email the board or sign up for public commentary and let your voice be heard.

A Time to Live our Values

This is far from the only recent evidence of incompetence by AAPS leadership. It's not even the first or second time a child with autism has been assaulted by staff at AAPS. Whether it's the recent botched investigation into allegations of a hostile racist environment at Pioneer High, or the many recent examples of children on the autism spectrum being denied required IEP services,  Ann Arbor Schools has a long way to go when it comes to proving it means it, when it says "we live by the deeply held core values of welcome, embrace and celebration of all in our community." It is time we sought new leadership for our schools, and demand an administration that stands for accountability and openness. 

We can move on from this, but not by forgetting it happened. To begin a culture of open and honest communication, and begin healing from these traumatic events, we need a new start.

The AAPS Board of Education can be reached at


  1. Hey how about calling a principal out when he says something blatantly racist and then having him threaten to find you ineffective (which would lead to firing)? We gonna talk about stuff like that?

  2. This timeline and response is sadly exactly what I would expect based on my own experience with (much less severe) incidents with my child. Circle the wagons, say nothing, hope the parents forget it happened. Nobody takes responsibility for anything.

  3. There's a Board of Ed meeting TONIGHT Monday August 7. You can sign up to make comments via the board website here (scroll down once you get into it):

  4. I have worked for Office of Special Ed (OSE) at AAPS as a service provider for 15 years. I work with caring competent service providers. Some staff need guidance to increase skills; some staff should not be employed. I would expect this. What I cannot remain silent about is the total ignorance and disconnect between OSE administration starting with Dr Fidishin and the rotating cast of assistant directors who have no idea who works for them, who the students are that they serve and how to do anything but hide or put put out the biggest fires. Staff, students, and parents are not treated with respect by this OSE administration. This is a very different department than when I started 15 years ago when we had 3 assistant directors that worked tirelessly with staff to advance a vision of excellence. My sincere hope is that this terrible situation will provide the school board the further evidence they need to remove Fidishin as head of OSE.

    1. Absolutely!!! OSE must be investigated - there are many people there that fail our community DAILY and because they are not visible and on the front lines, are not held accountable. Throwing dedicated building level staff under the bus is horrible for morale and trust in the community. Fidishin and the many other directors and administrators in central office that failed to manage this properly need to take accountability.

  5. The Dexter Community Schools are in step with this same type of “sweep it under the rug” culture. My autistic son was restrained by a Washtenaw Sheriff deputy when my son was only 10, in the fifth grade. I had just been on the phone with him and the Director of Special Ed. In the phone call my son was telling me about learning how to use his Dragon Dictation because he had difficulties writing due to low tone, etc. Apparently, when they got off the phone, the Director of Special Ed at the time was Barb Santo. She’s now the Director of Human Resources. She pulled a power play and told my son to write a whole paragraph. My son wanted to use the Dragon Dictation that was in the IEP, our private psychologist had written a letter explaining the need to use the technology, etc. My son started to panic and said he wanted to call his mommy again, like they had just done. My cell phone number had a different area code, so when the Director of Spec Ed had helped my son previously dial 9-1-720-xxxx to talk to me, to help him regulate his emotions, he had tried to memorize it. He walked back to the front office, and was crying and pleading for anyone to help him call his mommy. A desperate and crying child, with a disability, trying to pick up the phone and dial 9-1-720 was futile. The director of Special Ed forbade anyone of helping my son. The adults, were torturing my son and holding down the phone or pressing the clicker. The suddenly, I’m called to say I have to come to Creekside elementary. The Sheriff Deputy, and apparent school liaison had restrained my autistic son for desperately trying to call me since none of the adults in the room had power over the Director Od special Ed, who was also acting principal that day of Creekside. The sheriff’s deputy said he grabbed my son by the wrists since he didn’t want him to call 911 by mistake. Welp, why not? Maybe that person would have had the common sense to help my disabled son. The Director of Special Ed also told me in a meeting w the school psychologist, and other parents that at the Cooper’s “Fun Run” held most years at Hudson Mills, she would make my son walk the 3 mile one way lap, before he could earn any of his favorite Doritos. Fast forward, DHS principal, Kit Moran, forced my son into a in school suspension without calling it that. My son was preventing and barred from all Academic Classes at Dexter High School. When our family couldn’t fight against Goliath (Chris Timmis was sending emails to the BOE saying I was “the most difficult parent”, speaking horribly about my three sons, breaking HIPPA and FERPA laws”. When I would email Timmis about needing academics for my high functioning autistic son, he told me to find another school. Moved to WI and the teachers there saw my son as a math savant, doing multi step algebraic equations in his head, multiplying and dividing, etc. My son was given a FAPE in WI, not in MI. My son graduated after working his tail off for 2 years, through summers too, in order to graduate in July 2021. We are back in Dexter, but I wonder why. Everyone here knows I’m a relentless advocate, and everyone wants to sweep the atrocities under the rug. Why? Now my son is working on the Automation with Python google certificate and wants to be a cybersecurity specialist. Retaliation is reality when you’re an advocate! It must stop! Schools must not destroy our autistic youth! #justiceforaidan

  6. AAPS is subject to FOIA. AAPS site says Superintendent Swift is responsible for FOIAs to AAPS. A parent requested an existing document - a video - and was, apparently by default, denied access.
    Ms. Swift is responsible for that parent's claim of damages against AAPS. In short, it starts to look like a cost save if we terminate Ms Swift's employment.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to post such detailed information. I have an autistic daughter and I have never allowed her to ride the bus, for exactly this reason.

  8. What happened to this family is absolutely awful. As an AAPS community member, I want the office of special education fully investigated for their hand in this. Blaming on the school principal is not going to fly. He doesn't even have the authority to address this issue appropriately. Why is it that the people hiding in the central office aren't taking accountability for their failure to provide resources for these special ed classrooms. Who is responsible for training bus aides? Who is the manager who is responsible for overseeing special ed services at Carpenter? There are many people in central office who had a hand in covering this up and failing to communicate and should be investigated. This was a horrific situation that required a response above and beyond a building principal.

    The district has released a public statement that all Carpenter Staff followed procedure in the bus incident, was that not true? The statement was made to WXYZ in their article dated 7/27/23. Does anyone even care what this incident is doing to the morale and cohesiveness of the Carpenter community? A school that serves your most vulnerable students? Central Administrators have failed to provide Carpenter equitable and responsive resources for YEARS to no fault of the front line staff, teachers and principal serving vulnerable students every day. AAPS Community - If you value diversity and equity, you have to have that lens in ALL actions, including personnel actions.

    Why is Michael Johnson placed on leave when it is FACT that he is NOT the administrator for Self-Contained programming or transportation? He has little to no authority over how the Office of Special Education (or Durham Services) addresses abuse allegations and personnel matters for Special Education staff and students.

    The performative, reactive, and procedural administrative leave placed on Principal Michael Johnson is extremely harmful to Carpenter community and seems unnecessary seeing that no other administrator or staff has been placed on leave over this incident. The community has to support the educators who look our students in the face every day and deliver. We must prevent central office from throwing them under the bus to cover up their own wrongdoings. The decision to place him on leave causes more harm than good, especially if there is no substantive and pointed evidence of the wrongdoing alleged. For a district that espouses values around equity and justice, I am appalled at the decision to remove a principal at a school with so many families in need of a stable community. Especially when OSE (Office of Special Education) has not been investigated and held to the same related procedural standards. INVESTIGATE OSE and make them take accountability for their lack of oversight and management of their service models and delivery.