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East High School

The school district's initial response to the report of a rape at East High School was slow and insufficient. Give credit to East Principal Michael Hernandez for following up with this message: “I apologize about the statements that were made by the head of security last night in the news. We are working with the Rape Crisis Center to problem-solve together next steps to provide a safe space for all in our community.”

The reports that a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped inside an East High School bathroom were horrifying.

The response from the head of security for the Madison Metropolitan School District added to the horror.

As concern was rising at the school and in the community regarding the April 10 incident, Joe Balles, the district’s safety and security coordinator, appeared on WISC-TV to discuss allegations that two 15-year-old boys had been charged with felony second-degree sexual assault and fourth-degree sexual assault, which is a misdemeanor. One boy was also charged with kidnapping, while the other was charged as a party to a crime of kidnapping.

“Our buildings are full of kids, and kids will be kids,” Balles announced on April 15. “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.”

The statement sent shock waves through the community, as it suggested that the school district sees sexual assault as “kids will be kids” behavior that is to be expected. It also suggested that the district believes that more assaults are to be expected because “there are incidents that are going to happen from time to time.”

Students, teachers and parents responded immediately, and appropriately, with demands for an explanation — and for a signal that the district understood that Balles was sending exactly the wrong signal at exactly the wrong time. East High Principal Michael Hernandez recognized this and began an April 16 message by writing, “I apologize about the statements that were made by the head of security last night in the news.” Hernandez announced, “We are working with the Rape Crisis Center to problem-solve together next steps to provide a safe space for all in our community.”

The next day, Hernandez was back with a message explaining support and counseling services that would be available to students and staff.

For his part, Balles acknowledged he had employed “an extremely poor word choice” in the TV interview and issued a statement that said: “It is never OK to rationalize, minimize or excuse sexual assault, and there is no excuse for my words, which did not recognize the profoundly deep impact that sexual violence has.”

We give credit to Hernandez for responding to the concerns raised by what Balles initially said. We are glad that the principal coupled the apology with a plan to provide some counseling. This represents a step in the right direction.

As for Balles, we appreciate that he has admitted that his words cannot be excused.

With this said, no one in Madison should be satisfied with what we have heard from the school district regarding this jarring incident. When we say “no one,” we are referring, in particular, to school administrators and elected members of the School Board. Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham waited for more than a week to dispatch an email that said “we have much more work to do.”

That was a dramatic understatement.

School Board members and administrators have failed to provide sufficient leadership at a critical moment in Madison.

Wrongheaded, backward, slow and bureaucratic responses to charges of rape and kidnapping in a Madison school have unsettled students, teachers, staffers and parents. The news from East High demanded an immediate and on-point response. What came, instead, was embarrassing evidence that too many of the people in charge are disengaged and out of touch.

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So, as three new members join the board, let’s reset and focus on what needs to happen.

This is a time to call in people with greater expertise, to invite far deeper and more honest community engagement, to expend resources, and to apply dramatically higher standards for measuring what is working and what is clearly not working.

School Board members and administrators need to recommit to a basic premise that underpins public education. The premise is that students, teachers and staffers in public schools have a right to expect that every school will be safe for every student at every time.

This goes far beyond debates about school resource officers. Though we respect the views of those who say that the officers should remain in the schools, we do not presume for a moment that they can or should be expected to provide the level of security that is required.

What is needed now is a top-to-bottom commitment by the people who run the district to ensure that public schools will be safe spaces. When there is the slightest question about whether safety is ensured, the whole of the school system needs to hit the brakes and refocus on the task at hand. Why? Because it is absurd to imagine that children will get the education they need in an insecure or unsafe environment.

There may still be a few Madisonians who imagine that a deeper commitment to safety could or should put schools in lockdown. They are wrong. It is not necessary to restrict the essential freedom and flexibility that underpin what is best about modern education in order to prevent sexual assault, or other felonies, from occurring in Madison schools.

A sophisticated commitment to school safety will promote more freedom and flexibility because students and teachers will be allowed to focus on the engaging and exciting prospect of getting a great education — as opposed to worrying about whether it is safe to enter a bathroom.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.