On Jan. 11, the Madison School Board began evaluating new responses to staff racial incidents that would have the board make discipline decisions.
The conversation came at the end of a week in which the district’s communication on staff use of racial slurs received criticism from an independent hearing officer, who advised the district to overturn a disciplinary suspension given to a Nuestro Mundo social worker last year following her use of the N-word in a staff meeting.
The “zero tolerance” practice the district began using during the 2018-19 school year. Seven staff members were disciplined. The practice came under international scrutiny last fall when West High School security assistant Marlon Anderson was fired for using the N-word while telling a student not to call him that.
Ideas discussed Saturday included the School Board making decisions on any discipline related to a racial incident, focusing on a restorative process rather than a punitive one.
MMSD chief of human resources Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff said the proposals are a work in progress. Staff will continue to seek input from principals, teachers of color and others in the community.
“The work that we are embarking on is incredibly complex work,” Hargrove-Krieghoff said. “There is no known solution for this work, which I think is really important for this team to sort of know and own.
“We’re going to learn a lot about this process. We’re probably not getting it exactly right the first time out.”
One challenge is how to define a “racial incident,” which Hargrove-Krieghoff said they purposely left more broad than "use of a racial slur." One document provided to board members on Saturday defined it as “any incident that anyone perceives as being motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race.”
“When we think about a racial incident, our team didn’t want to get so specific around a racial slur,” Hargrove-Krieghoff said. “We want to be able to honor investigating and moving through that process and coming to the right conclusion. Leaving it broad to help us ensure that we’re going to move through the process and account for all of those situations or issues.”
If such an incident was reported, the proposed process would have the employee placed on administrative leave. That would be followed by an investigation by a superior and the human resources team, to determine if the allegation is substantiated through interviews and documentary evidence. The HR team would make a disciplinary recommendation to the School Board, which would meet in closed session to make a decision.
If the decision were anything other than termination or no action, the employee’s supervisor would develop a “remediation plan” for the staff member to return to work.
The process and practices have not been voted on by the School Board, and it’s unclear if they will be before being implemented. Outreach to other stakeholders will include asking them to think through a provided case scenario and reflect on how the proposed process would apply.
MMSD assistant superintendent for teaching and learning Lisa Kvistad said a key component is offering resources to the supervisors who will have to respond to these situations as well as the school community, to help everyone understand the process.
“You want to help build the confidence of the leader or the grown-up that is going through this,” Kvistad said. “You also want that school community ... to have confidence that there is a plan or a template that people are drawing from.”
Interim superintendent Jane Belmore, who made the decision to overturn Anderson’s firing last fall following the community outcry, said “having this kind of model to follow would be very helpful for our principals.”
The overall goal of the new process is to transform behavior, respond to the harm and “then support in every aspect that is possible,” Hargrove-Krieghoff said.
“There’s always a need for us at some level to be as consistent as possible when we’re managing these,” she said. “There’s discipline when it’s appropriate, that learning happens and that restoration happens and that those things are addressed every single time.”
Board member Kate Toews expressed concern about what happens if an allegation is found to be unsubstantiated.
“The school will know that something has happened and students will know their staff person has been gone,” Toews said.
Hargrove-Krieghoff said a re-entry plan would be created consistent with other situations in which someone is re-entering an environment.
A template for a remediation and restorative action plan provides a list of topics for a supervisor to consider addressing after discipline has been determined. These include completion dates for various actions in areas like policies and procedures, staff support and professional development, student support and family communication.
Kvistad said it will require ongoing consideration and updates to the resources available to staff.
“I am not sure we have it completely right, but we have something,” she said.