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In interview, former Whitehorse staffer speaks publicly for the first time since altercation with student

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SCHOOLS (copy)

Whitehorse Middle School, where an altercation between an MMSD positive behavior coach and an 11-year-old student happened on Feb. 13. 

Rob Mueller-Owens, the former Madison School District employee who earlier this month voluntarily resigned after a highly publicized incident with a student at Whitehorse Middle School, said in an interview with the Cap Times that he has "nothing but love and compassion" for the 11-year-old girl involved in the incident.

"I have nothing but love and compassion for this family, for the girl in particular and her mother and grandmother in general," Mueller-Owens said. "I only want healing to happen, because I know there is a lot of suffering, not just on the part of this family but on our whole community. And I would like to avail myself of any service I can be."

Whether Mueller-Owens will be able to find a place in the community remains to be seen, as he has kept a low profile since media reports surfaced last month about the Feb. 13 incident and sparked a flurry of outrage in the community.

Mikiea Price, the girl’s mother, has said she believed Mueller-Owens snapped when he attempted to escort her daughter out of a classroom after she had repeatedly disrupted it.

"I have been in several situations where students have kicked me, spit on me, broke my ankle, and I still did not conduct myself in that kind of manner," Price said when no criminal charges were filed against Mueller-Owens.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham penned an open letter to the Madison community in which she described the altercation as "especially horrific."

"Jennifer Cheatham has known me ever since she came to Madison and has grown to respect me and trust me," Mueller-Owens said. "She invited me to the White House with her because of the restorative work I've done in the district and my commitment to kids in this city."

mmsd at white house on school discipline

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham tweeted this photo of her, at left, with elementary schools chief Nancy Hanks and behavior coach Rob Mueller-Owens at a White House conference on school discipline in Washington in 2015.

The irony of the incident is that Mueller-Owens served as a positive behavior coach. He traveled to Washington D.C. with Cheatham to attend a conference in 2015 at the White House to talk about reforming school discipline.  

“E tu Brute? That’s how I felt. You’re going to stab me in the back, too, Ms. Cheatham?” Mueller-Owens said in response to the superintendent’s open letter.

Mueller-Owens and his attorney, Jordan Loeb, said MMSD's handling of the incident and his employment with the district was unfair.

"I don't think it was done fairly. They used me for political expediency, which does nothing to help our city, does nothing to help this girl and her family," Mueller-Owens said. 

Mueller-Owens voluntarily signed a separation agreement on March 15 that was approved by the Madison School Board in a closed session. The agreement, which allows him to continue to receive his regular salary and benefits through the end of the school year, included a mutual non-disparagement clause.

Loeb said the interview with the Cap Times was meant to allow his client to give straightforward answers to straightforward questions and not disparage the district. 

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, an MMSD spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, citing the non-disparagement clause.

Mikiea Price, the mother of the student involved in this incident, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

School Board President Mary Burke declined to comment for this story.

School Board member TJ Mertz declined to comment on Mueller-Owens' claims because of the non-disparagement clause, but said more generally that it's difficult for the community and district to find closure with events like this and a string of racial slurs incidents involving teachers, partly because staff members often voluntarily decide to resign and take a severance package instead of going through an appeal process available to them if they're fired.

Mertz's opponent for Seat 5 in the Tuesday's School Board election, Department of Public Instruction consultant Ananda Mirilli, said that while it would be concerning if Mueller-Owens’ claims of not being questioned by MMSD is true, his claims speak more generally to concerns about MMSD’s public responses not coming more quickly after incidents.

“There’s the letters from Jen, the letters to the families at Whitehorse, and it all felt disjointed … without knowing what the district has done, it’s really hard for me to know whether or not (Mueller Owens' claims) are true,” Mirilli said. “What are some of the things that happened between the things we know about because they were reported?”

Kaleem Caire, who is running for Seat 3 on the board, said he would be open to talking with Mueller-Owens. 

"(Mueller-Owens) shouldn't have engaged that young lady like he did," Caire said. "I think he should feel lucky and thankful that he was able to get a severance and move on with his career."

Caire's opponent in the Seat 3 race, Cris Carusi, declined to address the claims, saying "I feel like I can't comment on it because I don't know enough about the claims to make a comment about it because it hasn't happened in the public eye."

Seat 4 candidate Ali Muldrow was critical of Mueller-Owens' claims, saying people should be asking more questions and scrutinizing Mueller-Owens' behavior in this incident and if there were any previous complaints about him.

"I think that he went fairly un-scrutinized, and I think that he will get a great deal of compassion and has gotten a great deal of my compassion from my opponent, who wanted to make him the superintendent of schools," Muldrow said. "I think there were some questions that nobody got around to asking that I think is really important when a little girl accuses an adult man of hurting her."

Muldrow's opponent, former Dane County Board member David Blaska, has been critical of what he has described as a rush to judgement when the initial media reports about the incident surfaced. On his blog, Blaska said Cheatham "was premature to castigate."

When the separation agreement was announced, MMSD attorney Matt Bell said the district was still completing its administrative review of the incident. But Loeb said Mueller-Owens was never formally interviewed by the school district or allowed to explain his side of the story.

"The most painful thing about this besides being betrayed by the school district, the people I worked with — I believed in the agenda that Jennifer Cheatham and (district administrators) Alex Fralin and Nancy Hanks established for us, and I promoted it and worked toward it as hard as I could — is the leaders in the community who have jumped on the bandwagon that I'm a racist c---, and have said that in their political messaging, their campaigning, their Facebook feeds and all of social media," Mueller-Owens said. "It's been really hard because I have been an ally for a long time and to be rejected this way is very painful."

Mueller-Owens said he’s been compared to serial killer Ted Bundy and has received threats via email and social media since the incident happened. He said he has had Madison police patrolling his neighborhood at times because of the incident. He asked not to be photographed during this interview because he's trying to change his look to be less recognizable.

This ending to a 30-year career in teaching is not what Mueller-Owens expected. 

"I never thought my career would end in disgrace, and it didn't have to end that way," Mueller-Owens said. 

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Mueller-Owens and his attorney have reached out to several community stakeholders to try to begin a healing process. Though they declined to name any names, Loeb said discussions have been positive so far.

Mueller-Owens said he received a five-day suspension starting Feb. 18, and that human resources staff at the central office told him he could have done things differently so the situation would not have escalated the way it did. Though when he asked Alex Fralin, chief of secondary schools, what exactly he could have done differently, officials did not provide an answer, Mueller-Owens said.

PRESS CONFERENCE

Mikiea Price, mother of student, speaks to the media after Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne holds a press conference at the Dane County Courthouse in Madison, on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Mueller-Owens pushed back on the notion that he lost his cool during the incident.

“This whole time I was clear and present in my head. I was very mindful of what was happening, even when she started punching me I was stunned,” Mueller Owens said.

Dane Country District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said during a news conference earlier this month that false narratives floated around about the incident, but he didn't specify what they were.

Price said Mueller-Owens pushed her daughter and pulled her braids out.

PRESS CONFERENCE (copy)

At a March 5 press conference at the Dane County Courthouse, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced that no charges would be filed against a Whitehorse Middle School staff member who allegedly assaulted a student. 

Mueller-Owens said in police reports that he attempted to protect himself from the girl by putting his hands up in front of his face as the girl continuously punched him. He said he used his body to move her forward into the hallway from the classroom, telling police that he never pushed, punched or hit the student. Mueller-Owens said he recalled feeling the student's braids between his fingers as he kept his hands up to block her punches, but that he never grabbed them or pulled them out.

Once the two, along with another staff member, were in the hallway, Mueller-Owens said he attempted to put the student in a bear hug so she could not punch him as effectively. In that process, he lost his balance and they all fell to the ground. Mueller-Owens said the student knocked off his glasses while she was punching him.

“I stand by what I said in there," Mueller-Owens said of the police report.

Mueller-Owens said he understands why the student and Price feel the way they do about the incident.

“I’m the dad of a freshman at La Follette. If my daughter called me and told me a teacher attacked her, I would feel very similarly to Ms. Price. I would believe my daughter," he said.

Mueller-Owens said in the police report that he relayed to school officials that he felt Whitehorse could not give the student what she needed to succeed. He also said in the report that he felt his pain was insignificant to that of the student and her mother. 

He explained that the ordeal was a missed opportunity to have more thorough inquiry into what MMSD is failing to do to support children with significant needs. 

Mueller-Owens emphasized that he is willing to do anything to help the community heal from the incident, even if that means staying away.

“I hope there is a place in their consciousness to know that all of my work is always sincere. The idea that I’ve been painted as someone who would harm a child is just… I would never harm a child,” Mueller-Owens said. “I would give up my life for a child. I would protect a child. I would never harm a child. And I would expect that the people who know me, know that. And some of these people making these comments don’t know me.”

Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/Channel3000.com and at POLITICO.