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The Madison School Board is pictured at a meeting in November 2018. The board is set to meet on Feb. 25 to take up a final vote on changes to the district's student discipline policy. 

In lengthy discussions Monday night, the Madison School Board wrestled with how to make sure the updated student discipline policy works for everyone.

The Behavior Education Plan, which was first introduced in the 2014-15 school year as a response to a “zero tolerance” policy that disproportionately affected students of color, has several changes set for a vote on Feb. 25.

Changes to the BEP include improving the policies in the plan itself, providing more resources and addressing implementation concerns.

Several members, including TJ Mertz, Seat 5, and Nicki Vander Meulen, Seat 7, discussed the possibility of delaying the Feb. 25 vote to allow more time to address remaining issues.

“Some of the changes and emphasis are really positive,” Mertz said. “I also don’t think this is ready to be passed on Feb. 25. I think there’s a fair amount of work to be done on the grid, based partially on the meeting we had last week but also some other things that are there.”

Jay Affeldt, the Madison Metropolitan School District’s director of student mental, physical and behavioral health said the student behavior ad hoc committee would discuss the possibility of delaying the vote but that there was no final plan yet to delay a vote.

“I also don’t want to rush it,” Affeldt said. “We don’t want to be in a position where as soon as it’s approved we have to come back and make changes to it. But I also want to hold on the other side of that, our ability to move forward with building out the implementation guidance, our ability to roll this out to schools before we hit summer.”

Affeldt said the district planned to approve the BEP updates well before the start of next school year to give staff enough time to understand and implement the changes without feeling rushed.

“I want to make sure it’s right,” Vander Meulen said. “I don’t want to rush it and say, ‘Oops, we forgot this.’”

Although the original goal of the BEP was to reduce the disproportionate amount of suspensions, there has been concern that school staff don’t always report misbehavior because of a concern to get the numbers right.

School Board President Mary Burke said the BEP must start the conversation and provide guidance for staff as to how to best help students with the most intense needs, which Affeldt said comprises less than 1 percent of students across MMSD.

Also of concern to several members was how to best evaluate the success of the changes. One of the plan’s goals is “to increase the number of students, families and staff who feel a sense of belonging,” as measured by an annual climate survey. Mertz and Burke mentioned a desire to get questions that ask specifically about whether students feel safe.

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Other plan updates

The School Board also heard updates on the district’s other priorities, including special education, English language learners and advanced learning. The updates were broad and did not include some specific updates on what advisory committees had accomplished recently, according to Christina Gomez-Schmidt.

“I think what’s common to all three of these plans, is that each has issues with building-level implementation which need to be addressed in order for these plans to be effective,” said Gomez-Schmidt, founder and organizer of the Madison Partnership for Advanced Learning. “What I see in the Powerpoint is a 10,000-foot overview of district processes. I was hoping to see a ground-level view of the successes and challenges and what needs to be adjusted to serve students better.

MMSD is currently under a compliance review from the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, an investigation that began in 2016. At issue was the school district’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after the education department said it found statistically significant racial disparities in advanced placement enrollment numbers at the high school level.

Gomez-Schmidt said the advanced learning advisory committee had created a set of recommendations to send to the OCR as part of their requirements, but it was not part of the Monday presentation.

The recommendations, a first set which was submitted on Dec. 3, 2018, and another on Jan. 15, were aimed at getting to the root causes of these disparities in access and opportunity for advanced coursework.

The School Board is set to take on other advanced coursework issues in April, including exploring the current system for honors classes.

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.