Dozens of Madison East High School staff members spoke out in an open letter Friday against comments made by Madison School District safety and security coordinator Joe Balles in a news story earlier this week about an alleged sexual assault at the school.
Balles on Tuesday apologized for “poor word choice” in an interview with WISC-TV/Channel3000.com where he was quoted as saying “"Our buildings are full of kids, and kids will be kids. As terrible and tragic as that incident sounds, I would just ask that people just be patient. Our schools are very safe but there are incidents that are going to happen from time to time."
Two 15-year-old boys were arrested last week after a girl said she was sexually assaulted inside a bathroom after school hours at East High School on April 10, according to police.
“The last week at East High School has been a challenge for many East staff and students as we process the violation of our trust and sense of security due to the alleged sexual assault that occurred at East and made more traumatic by comments given to the media by our Coordinator of School Safety and Security, Joe Balles,” the letter reads. “It has been a heartbreaking and infuriating week.”
Though Balles apologized for his comments, the letter’s signers said they were “dismayed by the lack of response” from Superintendent Jen Cheatham, who they said “has yet to address the district’s plan for repairing the harm done to our school community.”
“The staff and students of MMSD need to know that comments that reinforce rape culture and victim-blaming will be handled as seriously as other forms of oppression,” staff wrote.
Principal Mike Hernandez apologized for Balles’ remarks on Tuesday, but the staff members writing the letter said Cheatham’s lack of enough action has increased trauma.
Staff members called for disciplinary measures taken against Balles, mandatory training for security personnel on sexual assault and rape culture, professional development for staff on dating violence and a new safety and security plan.
The Gender Equity Club at East High School also released a statement on Friday criticizing Balles’ comments.
“The students of East High School expect the district to hold Mr. Balles accountable, implement consent-based education for students and staff, and mandate trauma-informed education for staff, specifically security,” the club’s statement read.
The club’s letter was signed by 261 East High School students.
“(Cheatham) very much appreciates their letter, their concerns and their criticism, and hopes to work in partnership with them to ensure a safe environment for ,” Elizabeth Merfeld, a communicators director for MMSD, said in an email on Friday.
On Friday afternoon, Cheatham said the district is actively working on fighting against sexual violence in a letter to staff.
"There is no place in our schools for sexual violence or comments that minimize sexual assault," MMSD spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson said in a statement on Tuesday regarding Balles’ comments. "As a school district, we are partnering with the Rape Crisis Center to ensure that students and staff are learning about rape culture, sexual assault and consent and so that students know where to report incidents if they occur."