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Madison School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen, pictured in this file photo from October 2017, said “The Teacher Protection Act would destroy the work MMSD and schools across the state have accomplished to keep kids in school.”

Several groups assembled at the state Capitol on Thursday to speak out against a bill that would require police departments to inform school administrators if a student is taken into custody for a felony or violent misdemeanor.

The bill would also give teachers the right to appeal directly to the school board if school administrators refuse to suspend a student, and terminate their teaching contracts without penalty if they are physically assaulted on the job.

Students, parents and representatives from the Madison School Board, Wisconsin Family Ties, Disability Rights Wisconsin and Kids Forward organized a press conference before the public hearing on Assembly Bill 693. 

Joanne Juhnke, policy director at Wisconsin Family Ties, opened the press conference by sharing statistics about the state’s school discipline practices. Juhnke said one-third of students with an emotional-behavioral disability were suspended in 2016, 11 times the rate for students without a disability.

“If Wisconsin could suspend and arrest our way to school safety, we’d be there already,” she said.

Madison School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen said as an autistic adult and a juvenile criminal defense attorney, the act “terrifies me.” Vander Meulen pointed to a provision in the bill that would give teachers the right to keep students out of class for up to two days after an incident occurs.

“In order to reduce the school to prison pipeline, we must keep students in the classroom instead of suspending and expelling students at an alarming rate,” she said. “The Teacher Protection Act would destroy the work MMSD and schools across the state have accomplished to keep kids in school.”

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond Du Lac, who introduced the Teacher Protection Act last October, said in his speech to the Judiciary Committee that the bill was developed after conversations with teachers, school administrators and law enforcement.

Thiesfeldt said “real consequences” are needed for students’ negative behavior and teachers deserve to feel safe in their classrooms. Thiesfeldt cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Education that said nearly 14 percent of Wisconsin teachers surveyed said they were threatened and over 11 percent said they were assaulted in the 2011-2012 school year, some of the highest rates in the country.

“I don’t want to disparage any district’s policy-driven attempts to improve behavior in their schools,” Thiesfeldt said. “But when policy attempts so heavily lean towards, what I’ll call a ‘social justice agenda’ which is obviously doomed to fail... you need to change course.”

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, challenged the bill, questioning why Thiesfeldt would prioritize it over allocating funds for more special education staff.

“You can’t expect schools to be able to meet the individual needs of students with autism, students with special cognitive needs, when special education funding has been flatlined for 10 years,” she said. “I fear this bill is just punitive. It does not give the resources that are schools are begging us for.”

Thiesfeldt, a former teacher, said he doesn’t know the “magic number” for school funding. He said he is not necessarily opposed to increased funding, and the bill is a low-cost way to improve school environments.

“There is no level of funding that you could offer to the schools in general where they would say, ‘Yeah, we have enough.’ You could put a whole army in the school and there would be times when they would say ‘Oh, we don’t have enough,” he said. “Our schools are asked to do more and more, and it is laid onto the teachers. We can’t go into the homes and deal with dysfunctional issues that cause a lot of these problems, but we can control what is going on in the schools.”

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In addition to students with disabilities, students of color are also disproportionately suspended and expelled in Wisconsin schools. Taylor asked Thiesfeldt if he was concerned about how the bill could exacerbate the achievement gap between black and white students.

“No, I am not concerned about that,” Thiesfeldt said. “If students are misbehaving, there needs to be consequences. The bill is colorblind.”

Representatives from the School Administrators Alliance addressed the Judiciary Committee and said they “strongly oppose” the bill.

John Forester, executive director of the School Administrators Alliance, said the group was in talks with Thiesfeldt about the bill, but discontinued them when it “became clear that the bill was moving in a direction we couldn’t support.”

Forester said SAA members report student behavior concerns have been “growing more numerous and more severe” in recent years, but does not think the bill is the best way to address it.

David Olien, former University of Wisconsin System executive vice president spoke on his own behalf in support of the bill. He recalled the death of family friend Martin Mogensen, a principal at Tomah High School, who was killed by a student in 1969.

“Watching the devastating impact that school violence had on that family and rippled down several generations forced me to come here today to testify and urge the Legislature to do something about school violence,” he said. “The sponsor of the bill, I believe, has done the public a major favor by raising the issue of school violence.”

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