Kim Williams noticed her 6-year-old son wasn’t himself when she picked him up from Lowell Elementary School Dec. 6.
He told her his head felt funny and she was shocked at his explanation: a staff member had picked him up from behind and choked him.
A week later, a message from the interim principal to school families contradicted the story.
“I want to be very clear about the result of the school district’s investigation. It did not support the allegation,” the message signed by Ellen Franzone said. “It also did not conclude that the staff member involved poses a risk to student safety. It did not conclude that a student was physically injured.”
An investigation by the Madison Police Department concluded there was no crime committed, though the staff member acknowledged to an officer she had picked the student up from behind while the student was running around. She denied touching his throat, while the 6-year-old told police his neck had been hurt.
The email from Franzone came two days after Williams went on local activist Brandi Grayson’s radio show Dec. 11 to publicly share her story, given a lack of what she saw as an adequate response from the school. Williams believes her son, and “knew something was wrong” when she picked him up from school that day — but the email added to what was already a traumatizing situation.
“They made me and my family look to be liars,” said Williams, who is black. “That’s very embarrassing.”
In an email to the Cap Times this week, Madison Metropolitan School District spokesperson Tim LeMonds acknowledged the email may have led to misunderstandings.
“The district realizes that while intending to provide information as quickly as possible to our families that day, the initial communication sent to families regarding the incident used language that caused confusion and was not an effective communication to families regarding the incident,” LeMonds wrote. “As a result, there were follow up communications in addition to personal conversations with the family involved to provide clarification and more information.”
More than three months after the incident, Williams is not the only one who feels slighted by the school’s administration. More than a dozen parents, most of whom are white, joined her at a Jan. 23 meeting with school and district officials to support Williams and share their concerns.
The fallout illustrates the fragility of the trust some parents have in authorities at school, especially black parents navigating a system in Madison that has often fallen short for their children. MMSD points to privacy laws and limitations on sharing personnel issues as complicating factors in keeping families informed.
In a year that has seen criticism from some for transparency in hiring a new superintendent, handling of racial slur incidents and a lawsuit over open records, trust is at a premium. Amid a decades-long national decline in confidence in schools, with growing competition in Madison for students and the funding that goes with them — plus a pair of referenda likely on this November ballot — MMSD and its schools need trust from the community.
“Break it down to any relationship, once trust is broken, it’s a hard one,” Edgewood College School of Education dean Tim Slekar said, stressing he did not have enough information to comment on the Lowell situation specifically. “A good relationship that’s built on trust is then absolutely essential for learning and those things that happen in a classroom.”
‘She was frustrated’
Williams contacted police the same day as the incident, according to investigation records obtained through an open records request by the Cap Times.
On Dec. 6, Williams’ son was in the library running around with another student when the staff member repeatedly asked them to stop.
According to the police report, Williams’ son told the officer the staff member “came up from behind him and picked him up off the ground using both of her arms” — something the staff member also acknowledged, telling police she had been concerned there could be a physical altercation between the students.
A district human resources staff member told police she did not think it was an appropriate use of restraint.
“(The Lowell staff member) reported that she picked the student up because he was not listening to her instructions to stop his behavior,” the police report states, citing the human resources staff member. “She indicated that (the staff member involved in the incident) was frustrated by this.”
Williams’ son said his neck hurt as a result of the incident, while the Lowell staff member reported she did not touch his throat, though she acknowledged that she “maintained a firm grasp around his chest as he struggled with her while being carried.”
The police report indicates the teacher was not trained in restraint techniques. Any district discipline toward the staff member is a “personnel matter” and the district cannot comment further, LeMonds said in an email, though parents do not believe she was suspended.
Numbers provided to the Cap Times in December following a records request show 324 students were restrained or secluded in the 2018-19 school year a total of 1,420 times in MMSD. Both of those numbers are below the 2017-18 school year, in which 540 students were restrained or secluded 2,482 times.
The Cap Times is not naming the staff member, as she was not charged with a crime. She declined to comment when reached via email.
Franzone did not respond to emails requesting comment on the situation.
Williams said support from the other parents at the school has helped her navigate the three-plus months since the incident.
“I’m still uncomfortable going into the school, but I don’t think it’s as bad as it was because the support of the parents has really helped me get through this tough time,” Williams said before schools were closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Those who spoke with the Cap Times said that the need for their support illustrates the problem.
“We could honestly say if she didn’t make some noise and get some people behind her, she would have not gotten the same level of response from the district,” said Jeremy Holiday, one of the parents who attended the January meeting. “It just sort of exposes that’s a reality that her and people that look like her deal with that we don’t usually as white parents.”
Investigation and response
The investigation closed exactly one month after the incident, and while the detective did not find probable cause for any criminal charges, the reports show different perceptions of whether Williams’ son was choked in the Lowell library that day.
Regardless of whose story is technically accurate, said Lowell parent Kate Kaio, the school didn’t do enough to acknowledge a student’s pain.
“It’s a ‘he said, she said’ thing, facts are obviously relevant, but the 6-year-old was traumatized and still is,” Kaio said. “To me that’s the important piece, and the mom doesn’t feel heard.”
Williams and other parents at the January meeting said though Williams was promised a public apology, the closest the district has come is in a Feb. 13 letter addressed to the Lowell community from MMSD interim superintendent Jane Belmore.
In that message, Belmore wrote she was “deeply sorry for the anxiety this situation has caused one of our Lowell families, and I also acknowledge that with every incident there is an opportunity to learn and improve.”
However, she added, “It is my conclusion that practices were properly followed.”
The practices for responding to alleged staff misconduct include an investigation with interviews of the complainant and witnesses, review of facts by human resources staff and a meeting with the employee.
HR then determines an outcome, which can range from no action or a letter of expectation on the lower end to reassignment or termination in the most serious cases.
‘Our focus is on moving forward’
Franzone’s email to parents refuting the allegations tried to reassure parents that everything was OK. For some, it accomplished the opposite.
“You may have questions about information being spread that contradicts the results of our investigation,” Franzone wrote Dec. 13. “Our focus is on moving forward as a school community. Throughout the day today staff continued to ensure [sic] students that Lowell is a very safe community and that the adults here care about them and are here to help and support them.”
Kaio said Franzone’s email was seemingly satisfactory for many families, and she and her husband, Aaron, have heard from their children that some peers have said Williams made the allegation up. But, they added, it’s hard to square with the information in the police report.
“It’s much easier to believe that things are fine and the black kid was lying,” Kaio said.
LeMonds told the Cap Times that principals typically draft messages to families, but sometimes receive assistance from central office staff. In this case, he said, it was written “partially by Ellen and supported by a staff member here at central office.”
Kerry Zaleski, who has one child at Lowell and another at East High School, first heard about the incident on Grayson’s radio show the day after it aired, Dec. 12. Her fifth-grade son and her husband, Abdul, had heard the interview live the night before and told her about it.
“My first response was, ‘No, if something would’ve happened at Lowell we would’ve heard about it. I haven’t seen any emails from the principal,’” she recalled in an interview with the Cap Times.
The next day, as Franzone’s email came to her inbox, she thought to herself, “What the hell is this? Are you freaking kidding me?”
“I immediately put myself in the shoes of the parent, thinking if this was my kid, and this email went out, how furious I would be,” she said.
Other parents who spoke with the Cap Times shared similar views, concerned about the communication from the school as they heard through their own children rumors about what had happened.
“There’s the incident and the response,” Holiday said. “The incident did not necessitate a loss of trust but the response did. I don’t know that the school saw it that way.”
That concern has only increased since then, parents said, given communication from Franzone related to another incident.
In late January, a third-grade teacher was dismissed for unknown reasons. Only parents of students in that class received an email, and it did not explain what happened, only that a new teacher would take over and that she was looking forward to getting to know the students.
“My child knows about that because the kids talk about it, but I don’t have anything to tell him because all I know is that there’s been a staffing change,” Holiday said. “I don’t know what the rationale is behind keeping those things ostensibly secret, because they’re not.”
LeMonds said in an email, “The change in staff involved a long-term substitute teacher, and (we) can not comment on the reasons for the change as it is an internal personnel issue.”
In her message to Lowell parents sent in February, Belmore outlined the limitations on communication following incidents between teachers and students.
“While the school district cannot provide information specific to individual children, families or staff, we want you to know that the MMSD takes very seriously any incident that is perceived to cause harm to students,” she said. “We have been actively engaged with Principal Franzone and the Lowell staff in addressing the student/staff issues of recent months.”
LeMonds said the district “recognizes that keeping families informed provides the best outcomes for our students.”
“With every incident, school and district office administrators not only work hard to ensure the safety of every student, but also to provide families as much information as they can as soon as they can,” he said. “It is through staff guidance, planning and training that administrators ensure all appropriate student safety and privacy protocols are followed.”
Edgewood’s Slekar said any inkling from community members that there is information being hidden can quickly spiral into the community losing trust.
“Once that happens, the culture then that starts to develop inside the school with kids and the relationships children have with their teachers, it starts to almost be like a domino,” he said.
MMSD has seen a push in recent years for “restorative justice,” which focuses on rebuilding relationships rather than punitive measures for students. But in the case of Williams' son, the school allegedly did not do so quickly enough to repair the family’s relationship.
Belmore’s letter said it’s a process the district “strive(s) to engage in” following situations like what happened at Lowell. But Williams said the school did no such thing. A district social worker contacted Williams in February about doing restorative justice with Franzone and the Lowell social worker, but that gesture was in response to a parent reaching out to that district social worker, Williams said.
“The school never offered any restorative justice for my family and I,” she said. “They only started to show support when the parents started putting pressure on them about the situation.”
Other parents said the lack of information provided to Williams and the way the school framed the incident publicly was a problem.
“If that’s the district’s go-to move, is how can we minimize damage, then I think they’re going to miss the mark every time,” Aaron Kaio said.
Williams finding out about the incident from her son rather than the staff member complicated any restorative effort from the start. Holiday said teachers often talk to parents about incidents during the “informal” pickup time after school, and Aaron Kaio said hearing from the adult involved can provide some reassurance.
“If something happens and a teacher comes to me, ‘I really screwed up, this is what I did, I’m really sorry. Let’s get your kids in here, let’s talk to them, let’s figure out what we can do because I want to do whatever we can to make this right because I’ve made a mistake,’” Aaron Kaio said. “If I hear that, I’m still mad about what happened, but I think we’re going to be able to work this out.”
LeMonds wrote in an email the “standard practice is to notify and inform a student’s family of an incident involving their child as quickly and efficiently as possible,” but that the incident “happened late in the day and the parent arrived before we could communicate with her what had happened.” According to the police report, the staff member offered to talk with Williams after the parent had already heard about what happened, but the school social worker, who was the principal-designee that day, told the staff member not to.
Zaleski said beyond the communication to the school as a whole, she was disappointed in the lack of care in the district’s response to Williams and her family.
“One of the things to me that remains really disconcerting is that during that two months nobody at the district or the school did a home visit with the family to check up on them, to say, ‘Hey how are you doing, how is (your son) doing, what kind of support can we be providing? We understand this must be confusing, it must be traumatizing, what can we do to support your family?’” Zaleski said. “They should’ve been doing home visits and actively ensuring the family was doing OK during this time and providing resources for them.
“That’s what I would’ve expected.”
LeMonds said the district has been “trying to support (the family) the best we can,” but declined to get into specifics because of privacy concerns.
“We have had a lot of communication and face-to-face meetings with this parent,” he said.
In the February school newsletter, Franzone wrote about her and staff’s ongoing efforts toward actively combatting racism.
“I have personally reflected, and have supported staff reflection, on the systemic racism inherent in our city and district, on our own personal biases, and on ways in which we at Lowell can better serve our students and families of color,” she wrote. “As a primarily white staff, it is our duty and obligation to step into our role as anti-racist educators.”
To Williams, “actions speak louder than words,” and she hasn’t seen enough from the school or the district to believe in that commitment.
“That letter, to me, is like whatever. I don’t believe anything that you’re saying,” Williams said. “I think that you’re putting on a front, you’re trying to calm tension down in the African-American community. It’s like a cover-up to me.
“It’s like, ‘We’re doing all these things, a big pat on the back for us.’ I think they need to show more initiative.”
Trust in schools
Nationally, confidence in public schools has been on a declining trend for decades.
Gallup has measured Americans’ confidence in various public institutions since 1973, when 58% of respondents had either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools. In 2019, that was at 29% — tied for the second-lowest number recorded.
Edgewood’s Slekar said there must be an effort by schools to build “an intentional trust” rather than assuming there is “a given trust” from the community.
“We look at restorative, we look at relationship building, we look at these things after the fact sometimes, as opposed to going in intentionally from the very beginning and understanding that there is a process of trust that is built, constantly looked at, monitored, spent time with,” he said.
This school year has seen other incidents of distrust in the community toward MMSD.
Last month, 13 black community leaders signed a letter questioning the School Board’s superintendent hire and process. In the same week, former Jefferson Middle School principal Tequila Kurth resigned after more than a month on leave following a two-month period that included a student being found with a BB gun at school, a different student shooting a BB gun at another while on the bus, and the leaking of a student’s disciplinary records to a news outlet in response.
Kurth’s resignation included a letter to families in which she shared that she had not written any part of an email sent home to parents after the BB gun incident that downplayed what had happened. Despite that, the email was signed with her name.
And the district is currently facing a lawsuit from an anonymous complainant alleging it refused to respond to their open records requests.
The situation at Lowell adds to the list, more for the way the follow-up was handled than the incident itself, parents said.
“If the powers that be want me to have faith that they’re taking care of kids, they have to echo the seriousness of that in their public response to the incident,” Holiday said. “I know that you can’t say, ‘This kid with this name at this address did this thing,’ but you can talk about what happened because I feel like you need to.
“I just don’t feel allyship with them when they view me as someone they need to keep in the dark.”
LeMonds cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, as limiting the district on what it can share.
“We cannot disclose any information about a student or incident involving a student that would lead to the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information derived from education records,” LeMonds wrote in an email. “This information includes information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information.”
The information they do share attempts to strike “a balance of maintaining student privacy, student safety, equity and keeping our families informed,” LeMonds added.
Parent Kate Hewson, who said she believes Franzone is striking some of the right notes in supporting anti-racism work for staff, doesn’t feel that balance was well-struck in Williams’ situation, given her and other parents’ concerns about the staff member’s behavior.
“The trust is the really critical point here,” Hewson said. “It’s about trusting the communications that we receive, but also trusting that staff who have transgressed in some way are being handled in a way to really prevent that happening again.”
Williams said her son is “doing a lot better than before,” though he doesn’t talk much about what happened. She still hopes to see a public apology, and would like to see a “zero tolerance policy on teachers being hands on” with students without the proper training, she said.
“I've been able to cope with what happened but I'm still feeling a sense of distrust with the school and MMSD,” she said in early March. “They let my son, my family and the black community down.”
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