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County prosecutor's letter seeks to help Muskegon Heights "unity game" overcome recent shooting

Muskegon Heights High School (file photo)
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

The scene was set for the varsity basketball team from Muskegon Heights Public School Academy to host their final game of the season. They were scheduled to play Shelby High School in their home finale but the echoes of a Feb. 9 shooting at the school caused their opponents to cancel.

Without an opponent, the Tigers had to find a team to play and found Kalamazoo Lakeside Academy, a school that recently dealt with a mass shooting within their own city less than two weeks ago.

The Titans and the Tigers will square off on Wednesday in what is being called a “unity game” and Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson sent a letter to the local community asking people to pack the arena to show their support. Hilson joined Stateside to explain why he felt compelled to write the letter.

We're dealing with high school kids ... who had absolutely nothing to do with the unfortunate incident that happened outside of their school a few weeks ago

“We’re dealing with high school kids … who had absolutely nothing to do with the unfortunate incident that happened outside of their school a few weeks ago,” said Hilson. “We’ve got seniors … this is their final home game, it’s … senior night and there was potential for them not to be able to experience that. For kids, trying to understand why they are being essentially punished or why their community is being looked at in such a way, I think it would be very difficult for a high school kid to understand."

Hilson added, “That’s why I felt it’s so very important that this community … rally around these students, these kids, and give them what they deserve, which is a last home game. A senior night. So that the stadium or the arena is full so they get the full experience”   

According to Hilson, the shooter in the Feb. 9 incident at the school was not from the school and traveled to the game from his home in Grand Rapids. Hilson is unclear what his motivation was for the shooting, but after multiple disturbances at the game and in the parking lot, the individual left and returned with a gun and opened fire outside the gym. There no fatalities and some students suffered non-life threatening wounds, but police were able to apprehend the suspect and charge him the next day.

This incident caused a panic among the parents of Shelby High School students, who threatened to keep their kids home rather than play a game at Muskegon Heights for fear of a similar incident.

As a father of three, Hilson said he “absolutely sympathizes and empathizes” with the parents from Shelby, but he was disappointed that none of the parents or the administrators were willing to consider the possibility of playing the game at Muskegon Heights.  

“Had they said, 'We want to hear what you have to say' and still made that same decision, I still would have been disappointed, but at least they would have made an informed decision,” said Hilson. “I guess my biggest problem was, we were ready to provide them whatever information they wanted to make an informed decision and they just didn’t want to hear it.”

Earlier today, Muskegon Heights Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross gave a statement to Michigan Radio and called the game an opportunity for the community to "move forward and heal."

"This is our school, our community, and we are so proud that our students will be playing in front of their friends, families, and fans," Zachery-Ross said. "Of course, that would not be possible without Kalamazoo Lakeside Charter, and I would like to thank their school, parents and students for their support." Zachery-Ross said there will be a strong police presence at the school before, during and after the game.

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the controversy and what impact Hilson feels his stance on this issue will bring to the community. 

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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