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Madison School Board finishes meeting in private room, broadcasts video, after disruptions

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Empty school board seats

A livestream video of the Madison School Board monthly meeting plays Monday on a screen on an empty stage where members usually deliberate. The School Board left the auditorium to finish its meeting amid disruptions from the audience. 

As activists chanted, the Madison School Board left its usual meeting place in the auditorium of the Doyle Administration Building Monday night and finished the rest of its session in a conference room down the hall and away from the public and reporters.

The rest of the meeting was broadcast via live-stream video in the auditorium of the Doyle Administration Building. Security guards blocked entry into the conference room until the meeting ended and School Board members left the building. Officials said the disruptions made clear the meeting could not continue in the auditorium.

Protests were led by Freedom Inc., the local social justice advocacy group that has been calling on the Madison Metropolitan School District to not renew its contract to have police officers in the city’s four main high schools.

Freedom Inc. has regularly attended and spoken out at School Board meetings for nearly two years. Disruptions led by the group shut down the School Board’s October 2018 meeting. The seven-person governing body had to have a special session in the days following that shutdown in order to pass its annual budget on time. The October shutdown led to added security guards at the Doyle Administration Building during monthly meetings and updates to the public comment procedures.

Matthew Bell, MMSD’s attorney, said moving the meeting to a private room did not violate any open meetings laws, which typically require governing bodies and agencies to make sure their work is done in front of the public.

“Tonight, after several disruptions, we completed the meeting in the public’s eye by live-streaming in real time the meeting into the auditorium which had been (publicly noticed) previously,” Bell said following the meeting. “So anyone who was present in the auditorium where it was noticed would have been able to view the full board meeting, the full conduct of the board, and we fully believe it complied with open meetings law.”

Joe Balles, the district’s safety and security coordinator, said the move was legal because the meeting's public comment period had finished.

The decision to move the meeting was made by School Board President Mary Burke as members decided to go into a recess while protests overtook the meeting. No member objected to the move as it happened.

Burke did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the move. 

School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen, Seat 7, said she tried to object to moving out of the auditorium, but that it was so loud from chants by activists that nobody could hear her, and the district’s security team was telling members they were moving.

“If it were up to me we wouldn’t have left,” Vander Meulen said, while acknowledging that Burke has the discretion to move a meeting if there are disruptions like Monday night’s.

According to Bell, MMSD consulted with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards before making a policy change that would allow it to move meetings after the October meeting incident.

“We had to get to our meeting,” said School Board member TJ Mertz, Seat 5. “We have to be at least if not in the same room, at least viewable. This was the solution. It’s not a good one, but it’s not a good situation.”

Mertz, while clarifying that he was speaking for himself, said he thinks the eventual resolution to the Whitehorse Middle School incident from earlier this month will make a difference on how future meetings will go forward.

“From the news reports, you can understand why the community is so concerned,” Mertz said.

Vander Meulen said she hopes future meetings don’t end the way Monday's did.

“I want the public to attend all parts of the meeting with the exception of closed session,” Vander Meulen said. “The board’s job is to represent the people.”

School Board candidate Cris Carusi said she was concerned about the use of the live-stream.

"Even if this was a legal way to hold an open meeting, the School Board should make decisions with the community present, Carusi said in a statement. "Holding public meetings behind closed doors with a live video feed sets a bad precedent for transparent, democratic decision-making about our schools."

Reaction to Whitehorse incident

The public comment period during Monday’s meeting was dominated by speakers responding to an incident at Whitehorse Middle School where a staff member allegedly pushed an 11-year-old girl and pulled her braids out.

Monday’s meeting was the first School Board meeting since the Whitehorse incident surfaced in media reports.

Rob Mueller-Owens, the staff member facing accusations in the Whitehorse incident, is a positive behavior support coach. He is currently on administrative leave and will not return to Whitehorse, according to MMSD. Madison police launched an investigation into the incident, but it has not yet concluded.

A community meeting was held on Saturday at the Boys & Girls Club where parents, community members and educators discussed the incident and other issues black students and families face in Madison schools.

Tensions rose during Monday's public comment period as School Board candidate David Blaska took to the lectern urging the audience to not rush to judgment before the police report was released.

“I think we should see what the situation is,” Blaska said as several members of the audience attempted to shout him down by yelling “this is white supremacy,” as he spoke.

Blaska has gone toe-to-toe with Freedom Inc. in recent months over the issue of having police officers in Madison's high schools.

A slew of speakers in support of the 11-year-old girl said the Whitehorse incident is proof that school resource officers should not be in Madison schools.

“A black baby was brutalized,” said Brandi Grayson, co-founder of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. “Your response to the violation was not good enough. Your denial by not addressing it immediately until eight days later when the community started talking about it is not good enough.”

Several speakers said Mueller-Owens should be arrested and charged with a crime.

“Please come to a meeting. Please come to Whitehorse,” said Lara Ostrander, a teacher at Whitehorse, addressing board members. “Not two days after an incident has been public, but because you know right now it’s needed.”

Bianca Gomez, Freedom Inc.'s gender and justice coordinator, said the group will continue to have the same demands of removing police from schools and investing more money into students of color.

"The School Board's cowardice decisions to leave and ignore the voices of the people most impacted by their racist policies is a reflection of how they've treated us for the last two years," Gomez said after the meeting. "This is also a reflection of how they treat black parents who bring concerns to them behind closed doors. The School Board chose more state violence in the form of metal detectors and more police over actual safety and well-being of black and brown youth, queer youth and youth with disabilities."

Metal-detector policy, drill notification policy approved

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Board members on Monday approved a policy that says students may face random “as-needed” metal detector screenings.

The policy changes come after La Follette High School officials used metal-detecting wands to search each student as they walked into the building — including at the school's homecoming dance — during for two days after a teen was shot several blocks away from the school.

The policy change aims to clarify the district’s policies around intermittent searches with metal-detecting wands. No policy existed until now. Under the new policy, school officials may set up unannounced stations that all students would have to go through every few weeks or so when entering a school.

Though some in the public comment period said the use of metal detectors would disproportionately target minorities, the policy requires that if a screening is done, all students are screened.

Mertz said that because there was no policy in place when La Follette students were screened last fall, there were no protections for students, which is why the policy needed to be passed.

“If we are going to use metal detectors, then I want some protections in there and that’s what we passed tonight,” Mertz said.

Mertz said the School Board did not have enough votes to pass a policy that banned the use of metal detectors completely. 

Another policy change would add language requiring advance notice to students and families before Code Red drills—more commonly known as active shooter drills.

The added language comes after teachers and students at O’Keefe Middle and Marquette Elementary schools did not know a drill was taking place on Oct. 17. As a result, many thought the drill was an active threat situation—something supporters of the policy change said can be traumatizing for children.

The policy also adds language allowing schools to substitute a school violence event drill for an evacuation drill such as a fire drill. Advance warning still applies if there is a substitution.

The School Board also approved funding for increased elementary school trauma intervention services. The project, named Bounce Back and supported by contracts with two community-based mental health agencies, would increase the ability of MMSD to provide services to more elementary schools.

Swan Creek petition denied

A petition presented to the School Board Monday by some residents of the Swan Creek of Nine Springs neighborhood called on the district to allow the neighborhood to be transferred to the Oregon School District.

The School Board voted down the petition, citing that the district boundary agreement made with OSD in the early 2000s has a clause requiring the two districts to oppose any attempt to transfer the property. The Oregon School Board also met on Monday night and denied the petition.

Supporters of the petition said it geographically makes more sense for the area to be part of OSD. Additionally, a new elementary school is set to be built near the neighborhood by OSD, thus restricting access for students in Swan Creek who would want to attend.

Bell said the properties in Swan Creek give MMSD about $2 million in property taxes on an annual basis, and that 60-65 percent of public school students in the neighborhood attend MMSD, while the majority of other public school students attend Oregon schools via open enrollment.

Many of those against the petition said leaving MMSD would deprive some students of access to the Dual Language Immersion programs at MMSD and stifle opportunities to attend schools like Leopold Elementary School that are racially and economically diverse.

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/ and at POLITICO.