A Madison School District security official apologized Tuesday for what he said was “poor word choice” in an interview following an alleged sexual assault at East High School.
In a story on Monday by WISC-TV/Channel3000.com, the Madison Metropolitan School District's head of security Joe Balles 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."
Balles said in a statement on Tuesday that his comments to WISC-TV were poorly worded.
"I made an extremely poor word choice in my interview yesterday that does not represent my view or the district's view," Balles said in a statement. "I was speaking about students being present in our buildings in general after school and how we ensure our buildings are secure at that time. Still, I should have not made those comments in a story on this topic."
Balles said there is no excuse for the words he used and that he will do better for students of MMSD.
Madison East High School Principal Michael Hernandez apologized for Balles’ comments in a letter to families Tuesday morning.
"I apologize about statements that were made by the Head of Security last night in the news," Hernandez wrote. "Part of trauma sensitive schools is looking at the experiences students and staff have in our building that are traumatic or could trigger trauma responses."
Two 15-year-old boys were arrested last week after a girl said she was sexually assaulted inside a bathroom during after-school hours at East High School on April 10, according to police.
The girl, who is also 15 years old, reported the incident to East's school resource officer on Thursday, according to a Madison Police Department incident report. One suspect was arrested Thursday night on a charge of second degree sexual assault of a child, while another was arrested Friday morning on the same charge.
Missy Meal, the director of education and outreach at the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, said she was disappointed with Balles' comments.
"We talk to kids all the time about rape culture and that even a sexist joke creates an environment that makes higher levels and more violent forms of sexual assault and harassment easier," Meal said. "So to hear that from an administrator was really difficult to hear as someone who works with victims of sexual violence."
Meal said the center works with schools across Dane County and has visited all of the Madison high schools for presentations and workshops. She said she ultimately hopes schools can have more holistic sexual and reproductive health education programs that start at earlier ages and continue through high school.
The center plans to offer counseling services to students at East who need it. They plan to ask Hernandez to allow the center to do more educational programming in the near future.
"I would ask that we come back in and do more work around rape culture, which is a huge issue and some more work on consent and bystander techniques when it comes to ensuring that the culture at East High is one that won't tolerate any instance of sexual assault," Meal said. "And that includes anything from verbal sexual harassment up to and including an incident like the one that happened last week."
The center said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that its executive director, Erin Thornley-Parisi, has spoken with Superintendent Jen Cheatham and was assured that the Balles' comments were being taken seriously.
"The media informs the public about sexual violence in our community, and so it's important that when representatives from our schools speak, they avoid blaming or avoidance statements like the one's made by MMSD's Joe Balles," Thornley-Parisi said in the statement. "We must work together to end rap culture."
Balles told WISC-TV that there were two security guards at East when the incident occurred. He also told the outlet that Hernandez and East's vice principal were looking into what happened to determine if any changes to security procedures need to be made.
"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. "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."