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At Madison School Board forum, candidates dive in to recent Whitehorse incident, student discipline

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SCHOOL BOARD FORUM

TJ Mertz, (l-r) Ananda Mirilli, Cris Carusi, Kaleem Caire, David Blaska and Ali Muldrow, candidates for the Madison School Board, answer questions during a forum hosted by the Cap Times and Simpson Street Free Press at East High School on Tuesday night.

In February, there was a community outcry after a Madison Metropolitan School District staff member was accused of assaulting a student, so it’s not surprising that Madison School Board candidates dove into the issue at a forum Tuesday night.

In a largely polite and measured forum, some of the questions that brought energy and more direct disagreement were the Whitehorse incident, the district’s Behavior Education Plan and police in schools.

The Cap Times and Simpson Street Free Press hosted the forum, moderated by Cap Times education reporter Negassi Tesfamichael and Simpson Street managing editor Taylor Kilgore.

Three School Board seats are up for grabs and two candidates are running for each seat. Seat 3 is a competition between One City Schools founder Kaleem Caire and public education advocate Cris Carusi.

GSAFE co-executive director Ali Muldrow and former Dane County Supervisor David Blaska are competing for Seat 4.

Seat 5 is a race between Department of Public Instruction equity consultant Ananda Mirilli and incumbent School Board member TJ Mertz.

Each candidate was asked two direct questions. Their opponent could briefly respond, and candidates had five chances to “chime in” for 30 seconds on any question. The election is April 2.

BEHAVIOR EDUCATION PLAN

The plan was first introduced in the 2014-15 school year as a response to a “zero tolerance” policy that disproportionately affected students of color. The School Board passed revisions to the BEP Monday night, which included providing more resources and addressing implementation concerns.

Blaska was asked if the BEP is working, as some believe it lets “disruptive students” stay in the classroom and further disrupt it. Blaska said it’s not working and that pushing schools to avoid punishing students has only made schools more dangerous.

“There is no study that says the more you suspend one kid, the better another kid learns,” Muldrow responded, adding the BEP “was a response to the student code of conduct … (that) produced some of the most discriminatory outcomes in the country.” She also talked about the need to equip students with conflict resolution skills.

Caire said schools should work to build a “positive school culture.” He talked about the efforts at One City, the independent charter school he leads, to encourage compassion and helpful behavior rather than “strict discipline plans.”

Carusi said she appreciated Caire’s point and said the staff needs a “strong voice” in solving the BEP problems. Now, she said, the district is handing them directives from the top-down.

Mirillli said there was a need to create school communities where both students and staff feel a “greater sense of belonging” and advocated for more mental health support and social workers in schools. She also said Madison often engages in “data gazing,” or looking at numbers and reports to watch for downward trends, but that often “paralyzes us” and doesn’t yield different results.

Mertz spoke of the need for greater mental health supports. He voted against the new version of the BEP Monday night because it “ignored some of the biggest issues,” he said.

In response to Mirilli’s “data gazing” comment, Mertz argued that data was needed because previously, the board was just hearing anecdotes about the BEP and didn’t understand data trends “so the board was sold a bill of goods based on badly done data analysis.”

WHITEHORSE INCIDENT

Rob Mueller-Owens was a positive behavior support coach who was accused of pushing an 11-year-old student and pulling her braids out during an altercation last month at Whitehorse Middle School. Mueller-Owens was cleared of any criminal charges, and then resigned.

Mirilli was directly asked about her opinion on the incident.

“I do not expect an 11-year-old to be mature, to know how to behave at all times ... We’re talking about a child who has received special education services,” Mirilli said.

She said an IEP should be a “binding contact” and should be used to de-escalate a situation when a student is struggling. She also said she was concerned the district had done “no outreach” to the communities affected.

Mertz, the current School Board member, said he was allowed to “say almost nothing” on the matter, but did note that some meetings with the community have taken place behind closed doors, though he agreed a more public process is also important. He said the incident spoke to staffing and stress issues in many schools.

Blaska, who brought up the incident more than once during the forum, said he didn’t think “any teacher signs up to be pummeled in the face,” and said the teacher in question was thrown “under the bus.”

Carusi said the “incident never should have happened” and shows that there are systemic failures, and there are kids and staff under a lot of stress. Most importantly, she said, there needs to be “safe places to talk about race” moving forward.

Caire had previously said that as a father, he found the girl’s behavior unacceptable. He said he received a text from the girl’s mother Tuesday who was disappointed in his response, and Caire added the staff member was “out of line." 

SCHOOL SAFETY

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Muldrow was asked if she would keep school resource officers in schools, and if not, what she would do “to make sure schools are safe.” She said the question “leans toward this idea that having police officers in schools keeps us safe.”

“I don’t think any of us think that the neighborhoods with the most police officers are the safest neighborhoods … criminalizing young people is not a necessity of learning,” she said.

She talked about the need for mental health support, as well as addressing bullying.

“I think police go where there’s trouble and there’s trouble in our schools,” Blaska said, adding that he has heard the officers are well-liked by teachers and thinks that as responsible adults, the officers can be “powerful role models.”

PATHWAYS

The Personalized Pathways initiative allows students to enroll in a set of core classes with a small group of peers that is organized around particular themes like information technology or health services, and Carusi was asked if she would support universal implementation of the program.

Carsui said she saw some benefits of the program like giving teachers more shared planning time. But she’s concerned that kids with behavioral and emotional disabilities would all be “tracked” together and that some kids may not be excited about the limited career themes. She’s also concerned about “losing some of the rich diversity of electives” that can attract kids from private schools.

Caire said he thinks the program is a “good start” but he wants to go further and “recast what public education looks like in Madison,” wanting to see more diverse district schools like STEM schools, performing arts and trade schools.

Muldrow said the program is too “large and clunky” to keep up with a fast-changing world, pointing out the top grossing jobs in 2008 didn’t exist in 2002. She said she would be interested in seeing Pathways take a “make your own major” model.

Mirilli said her daughter was originally excited about the program as a way to take ownership of her learning and make high school courses relevant to her. But she also found it “clunky” with implementation problems, and would not support a wider use of the program.

There are several more opportunities to watch the candidates debate: on Thursday, 100 Black Men will host a forum at James C. Wright Middle School, 1717 Fish Hatchery Road from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Monday, March 25, Simpson Street Free Press will host a forum at Fountain of Life Covenant Church, 633 W. Badger Road, at 5:30 p.m.

Negassi Tesfamichael contributed to this report.

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