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Investigation: Michigan School for the Deaf didn’t tell police about students’ allegations

The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office says allegations against Erik Middlewood weren’t reported as required
Published: Nov. 17, 2020 at 11:41 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - Parents of Michigan School for the Deaf students were outraged to see the mugshot of a former teacher circulating on social media.

Erik Middlewood is charged with three felonies of child sexually abusive activity, accosting children for immoral purposes and using a computer to commit a crime. The Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team arrested him in a recent sting.

But, a student’s mother said she complained about Middlewood more than a year before he was arrested.

He lost his job at the school in January, but parents weren’t told why. An ABC12 News investigation discovered that it’s very similar to the reason he’s facing criminal charges -- but the school failed to inform law enforcement or parents.

“I was not shocked, I was appalled. I was appalled,” said Florlisa Fowler.

She saw Middlewood’s mugshot during a press conference at the Genesee County Sheriff’s office in August and recognized him as the same man who she said bought her daughter a pregnancy test last year.

Fowler said Middlewood was her daughter’s former teacher.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was happy that he was caught, but I couldn’t believe that they let that slip by them.”

Last May, Fowler got a call letting her know about the incident at the Michigan School for the Deaf, which is located in Flint. She said her daughter, who was just 16 years old at the time, confided to Middlewood believing she might be pregnant.

Fowler said Middlewood, who is now 31, bought a test for her daughter and administered it to her.

“There is a line, especially with male teachers and and female students that you just don’t cross, and that line was definitely crossed by Erik Middlewood,” Fowler said.

She can’t understand why Middlewood didn’t get the school nurse involved. The test showed Fowler’s daughter wasn’t pregnant, but they discovered she has a medical condition.

“She needed to go to the doctor and that just prolonged her health care. So that endangered her,” Fowler said of her daughter.

DISCIPLINARY ACTION

Middlewood did get in trouble. Records obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request show he admitted to providing the pregnancy test.

The Michigan School for the Deaf wrote up Middlewood for “fraternization with a student,” suspended him without pay for three days and told him he was out of warnings. Fowler knew the school fired Middlewood about eight months later, but neither she nor any parents or students were told why.

Other records from the school show statements from sixth grade students alleging inappropriate action by Middlewood. The school’s record shows those statements were taken after an employee confided in a staff member who consults with the Michigan School for the Deaf.

The person wrote to the school’s human resources liaison sharing she is “concerned for the safety and education of our middle school students.” The person added, “I do not feel comfortable having him in a classroom with the students without another adult present.”

That employee said four students told her Middlewood “lets them do whatever they want” in class. But other young girls made disturbing claims about their teacher.

Middlewood was fired after a week-long investigation.

So what did those written statements from young female students say?

The first says in part: “I don’t like him. He makes me uncomfortable. He gets real close to me. He scares me and continues to bother me... I don’t want to be in his class. I don’t want to see him anymore. He shuts the door often even when there is no reason.”

The statement also says Middlewood told the students not to share what happens in his class.

“This is This is unacceptable,” Fowler said. "This should have never have happened if they had stopped him before, and prevented him from coming back. That would have never happened to those children

She had no idea and neither did any of the 12-year-old students' parents.

MANDATORY REPORTING

The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office was just as alarmed about the additional allegations against Middlewood because they hadn’t seen them. Sheriff Chris Swanson said police were not contacted in January and there are no police reports filed against Middlewood, which means the school failed to follow the statewide policy of mandatory reporting.

“You don’t have an option, you know,” Swanson said. “You’re not an attorney-client privilege. You have mandatory reporting, and by non reporting, you’re just as guilty as facilitating the crime.”

He noted that these aren’t just young students. They are some of the most vulnerable kids in Michigan.

“Somebody who has a, you know, an already built-in obstacle, and now because of that, and the MSD, they take kids as young as 8 years old from 300 miles away, where they have no parents,” Swanson said. “So not only are they a school, they’re a caregiver.”

The sheriff’s office is opening a new criminal investigation based on the contents of Middlewood’s file at the Michigan School for the Deaf so the young students know someone is listening. Swanson said they’re taking this new case step by step.

The sheriff’s office is conducting forensic interviews with the young girls, including Fowler’s daughter, at the Voices For Children Advocacy Center. Swanson only knows of two possible victims currently, but he believes there could be more.

BIGGER INVESTIGATION

Investigators plan to backtrack through Middlewood’s job history.

“What you just discovered is, this isn’t just a one-dimensional arrest. This is a pattern of sexual deviancy,” Swanson said. “So, this is why these things take time, because we don’t want to leave anything unturned.”

So where should the line be drawn for letting teachers back into the classroom?

“Should he have lost his job? One hundred percent. For the pregnancy test? With the circumstances that we have right now,” Swanson said. “When you take the school, victim, the age, the difference of the age, even before because this had, before our GHOST arrest. You just have somebody, you’re like timeout. This isn’t a job for you.”

Fowler tried to get the school to understand that point before Middlewood allegedly claimed more victims.

“It’s their fault that this man was in that school doing this to our children,” she said. “They should be held accountable. They opened the door right back to a predator. They open that door right back to him.”

The Michigan School for the Deaf referred all comments about Middlewood to the Michigan Department of Education. Officials there said they couldn’t comment because of the ongoing police investigation.

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