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mmsd at white house on school discipline

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham tweeted this photo of her, at left, with elementary schools chief Nancy Hanks and behavior coach Rob Mueller-Owens at a White House conference on school discipline in Washington in 2015.

The day in March when more than 1,000 Madison high school students walked out of classes to protest the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson by a police officer was a teachable moment on discipline for school district officials, Nancy Hanks told a White House-sponsored gathering in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.

“It was really a humbling experience for us. Staff and administrators had to get behind the students; they were leading us,” Hanks, chief of elementary schools for the Madison Metropolitan School District said at Rethink School Discipline, a one-day meeting of educators, researchers and non-profit leaders on school discipline issues.

Reflecting a national trend — trumpeted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — MMSD has adopted a new conduct code designed to end the zero-tolerance practices that have led to disproportionately high rates of suspension for African-American students. The district’s Behavior Education Plan, intended to help students learn to manage their behavior, has gotten mixed reviews from teachers. Some of them protest that it does not enforce adequate consequences for disruptive behaviors by students.

On March 9, three days after 19-year-old Robinson was killed, school authorities opted to be flexible to allow students to leave school to peacefully participate in the protest that filled the state Capitol rotunda. Some, including Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and Hanks, accompanied them. The school district also provided buses for students to return to school.

“I broke a heel chasing after students in that protest,” Hanks recalled Wednesday. The experience of responding to student demand to join a local social and political movement demonstrated how vital it is to include students in conduct policy planning, she said.

“You can’t make plans for the students; you have to make them with them," said Hanks.

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Hanks traveled to Washington with Cheatham, who tweeted about participating in a break-out session panel discussion on root causes of problem behaviors in schools. Rob Mueller-Owens, a student behavior coach at East High School who has done a lot of work on restorative justice, rounded out the trio of attendees from the school district.

The trip was paid for through the superintendent’s office, said a school district spokesperson.

The implementation of the Madison School District's new education policy has been bumpy, Hanks acknowledged in her remarks during a plenary session. “We underestimated the cultural change necessary to fully embrace this new way of working.”

Building a problem-solving culture is paramount to success, she added.

“You have to lead the work with a sense of patience and compassion,” Hanks said. “You may not see results immediately. But educators need our support and generosity of spirit as they are engaged with this on the front lines.”

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