SCHOOLS (copy) (copy)

An administrator allegedly punched and pushed an 11-year-old student at Whitehorse Middle School on Feb. 13. Though the staff member was not criminally charged in the incident, MMSD decided to terminate his contract with the district this week. 

The positive behavior support coach who was accused of pushing an 11-year-old student and pulling her braids out during an altercation last month will not return to the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Officials said Friday that Rob Mueller-Owens, who had been cleared of any criminal charges early last week, has resigned. Mueller-Owens had been on administrative leave since the incident last month.

According to a separation agreement between the staff member and MMSD, Mueller-Owens will receive a salary and benefits through the rest of the current school year.

The separation agreement also includes a mutual non-disparagement clause.

"As a board, we are fully committed to creating welcoming and safe schools for all, where every child is valued and cared for, and we are more resolved than ever to move forward in that work," the Madison School Board said in a statement.

"It is our responsibility to support our students of color and to create the environments that all of our students deserve. We are committed to this work in our role as board decision makers and as representatives of our community." 

The Madison School Board held a special, closed session on Thursday afternoon where Mueller-Owens' separation agreement with the district was discussed. 

Matt Bell, MMSD's general counsel, said Friday the district entered into the agreement to prevent any future, costly litigation.

"The district believes that the current agreement is reasonable and alleviates uncertainty for the district, the community and Mr. Mueller-Owens," Bell said in an email.

The only agenda item at the meeting was "considering employment data and discipline of a public employee and deliberating regarding a separation agreement where bargaining reasons require a closed session," according to a public notice document filed Wednesday.

Though Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne had concluded that no crime was committed and reviewed the Madison Police Department's investigation, he had declined to say whether or not Mueller-Owens violated workplace policies and if he should be disciplined by MMSD. 

The Feb. 13 incident started when sixth-grade teacher Barbara Pietz called the office after the student sprayed air freshener in the classroom. Mueller-Owens, who came into the classroom to address the situation, attempted to put the student in a bear hug while the girl was punching him, according to his statements to police. Those two as well as special education assistant Tammy Gue spilled into the hallway in the process, where Mueller-Owens said he lost his balance and they all fell to the ground.

MMSD's use of restraint policy states that reasonable restraint may be used be school employees "when necessary to restrain, remove, or disarm students whose behavior presents a clear, present, and imminent risk to the physical safety of the student or others," and is only necessary "only when it is the least restrictive intervention feasible."

Only district employees who have received training on the use of restraint are allowed to engage in the restraint. 

Mueller-Owens said he has worked in education for more than 30 years, and has been working in MMSD since 2000 in various roles. He previously was an assistant principal at West High School before starting at Whitehorse. He stated in police reports that he felt his career was now over because he "took a risk" and that he wants the best for the student and her mother. 

Community outrage over the incident had risen in the weeks since it surfaced in media reports. A community meeting was held at the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County where parents aired their concerns about MMSD. The Madison School Board's monthly meeting on Feb. 25 was dominated by speakers criticizing the district's response to the incident and to the several reported incidents of staff members using racial slurs in the classroom. Disruptions at that meeting ultimately forced the School Board to finish its meeting in a closed room. 

MMSD Superintendent Jen Cheatham penned an open letter last month calling the incident at Whitehorse "especially horrific" and said there was a failure on the part of the district regardless of what comes out of the police investigation. Cheatham said the district is exploring launching a hotline later this spring for students, family and staff to report incidents of racism and discrimination. 

Another open letter in response to Cheatham has circulated in recent days saying that MMSD devalues the opinions and engagement of students of color and their families.

"Schools exist to nurture, uplift, and care for students," Rachel Strauch-Nelson, an MMSD spokeswoman, said in a statement after Ozanne announced the no-charges decision on March 5. "We must take every action to ensure that is true for every child."

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

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.