In the months before Michael Martin died, he rarely went to school unless his mother was home to make sure he got there.
Most weekday mornings, Joanna Wohlfert reports to her job in Ionia by 6 a.m. She and Michael’s stepfather, Joe Wohlfert, routinely left the house before Martin, 13, needed to get on a bus to Everett High School, where he was in eighth grade.
Until last fall, Michael could be counted on to get to the bus stop near his Lansing home every day, his mother said. Michael had been a good student who loved school and didn’t skip class.
The bullying, Wohlfert said, began in the fall on the bus and at school.
In December, Michael stopped attending classes unless she was at home to make sure he went, Wohlfert said.
On Jan. 25, Michael died at Sparrow Hospital, two days after attempting suicide in his home.
Wohlfert said she repeatedly asked for help from the Lansing School District and Dean Transportation, a private company that operates bus services for the district.
The district and Dean Transportation staff failed Michael, Wohlfert said, and the inaction of school staff contributed to his death.
“I know that some schools are overwhelmed with kids, but if you have a parent that’s reaching out to you, and trying to get help for their child, why wouldn’t you reach back?” she said. “Why wouldn’t you do something? He was going through a dark time and nobody cared. Nobody paid attention to him.”
Lansing School District spokesman Bob Kolt said Friday that school staff responded appropriately to Wohlfert’s reports of bullying. He said he would not comment further because the district is investigating Michael’s death.
Lansing police said Monday they are investigating bullying related to Michael’s death.
Mother’s pleas for help not enough
Michael walked into Everett, head down and shoulders slumped, with a hood covering his face one day in early January.
That’s the image Wohlfert says she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about since his suicide. She had just dropped him off in front of the school that day.
Michael looked defeated as he got out of her car that day, Wohlfert said. A sadness hung over him.
“As he was walking up he flipped his hood up, put his head down and just walked in. I’ve never seen my son walk into school like that.”
It broke her heart.
Wohlfert said that’s what she told Assistant Principal Priscilla Ellis later that day when they spoke in person for the first time about Michael’s chronic absences and struggles with bullying.
After dropping Michael off at school that day, she walked in the school office and asked to see Ellis.
Ellis is assistant principal at what is officially called Everett New Tech High School, a magnet program within Everett High School that uses technology to facilitate project-based learning for students.
“She said, ‘Well, it’s not that I forgot about him…let me see what I can do,’” Wohlfert said about the conversation with Ellis. “Then I never heard anything from her.”
Wohlfert was reaching out to school staff as early as November to ask for help with Michael’s declining grades and absences, emails she provided the State Journal show.
The district’s policies require that excessive absences, even when verified by a parent or guardian, “will be investigated by school district personnel,” according to the district’s student handbook.
Wohlfert said Michael’s absences were not.
The only notification she received from the school district were automated phone calls in the evening outlining class periods he’d missed that day.
“No one said, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this kid? You haven’t been calling him into school and he hasn’t been here,’” Wohlfert said. “Nothing.”
While she said Michael never described to his mother the verbal insults hurled his way, his friends have since told her he was teased about his weight, his glasses and his braces. And, they told her, he was assaulted when he was slammed against a wall in the school’s lunchroom this school year.
Attendance records Wohlfert obtained from Everett High School show Michael’s absences date back to September. He missed 33 days this school year, more than six weeks of classes.
“…I have found him home, at least one day a week,” Wohlfert wrote in a Nov. 30 email to Ellis. “I do not want him to get into this sort of pattern and want to put a halt to it now, so any help I can get for him would be appreciated.”
Ellis never responded to that email, Wohlfert said.
In a Jan. 8 email to school counselor Jennifer West she wrote, “I have reached out to the bus garage and the assistant principal trying to get some help for my son. He went from going to school to not going at all. He says there is some bullying on the bus.”
She had reached out “numerous times,” Wohlfert wrote, and she did not know what else to do.
“I AM ASKING FOR ANY HELP I CAN GET,” she wrote, in all capital letters.
In an email reply to Wohlfert, West wrote she had spoken with Michael “just before break,” after a teacher sent him to her office.
“Despite my efforts to talk with him, offer him support, etc., he absolutely refused to speak with me or even acknowledge I was speaking to him,” West wrote.
Wohlfert also reached out more than once to Assistant Principal Ellis.
In another reply to an email Jan. 8, Ellis wrote to Wohlfert about speaking with Michael about the bullying on the bus. He could not give her any names, Ellis wrote.
“I have asked him to stop by the office at the end of the day so that I could go out to his bus to try and figure out who the student(s) may be but that has not happened yet,” she wrote. Ellis asked Wohlfert in the email which bus Michael rode.
Wohlfert said she believes Michael would have been too worried about possible retaliation to agree to accompany Ellis to the bus.
It’s unclear whether West or Ellis followed up with Michael again before his death Jan. 25.
West cited confidentiality concerns and declined to talk about Michael when contacted by the State Journal. Ellis didn’t return a message left by the State Journal.
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SOURCE: USA Today; Lansing State Journal, Rachel Greco