Members of the Madison School Board moved to the forefront last week in the urgent discussion of school safety. This is a welcome, and necessary, intervention because the response from the school district’s top administrators to allegations of rape and sexual assault in the district’s high schools has been at best insufficient and at worst deeply troublesome.
In mid-April, when two East High School students were arrested for allegedly raping another student in a bathroom after school, the school district’s safety and security coordinator shocked the community with chillingly tone-deaf and disengaged statements.
“Our buildings are full of kids, and kids will be kids,” security chief Joe Balles said in an April 15 interview. “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 response from Balles to questions from a TV interviewer suggested that the district — or at least the person who ought to be setting the tone for the district when it comes to school safety — 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.”
East High Principal Michael Hernandez immediately apologized to students, staff and the community for the statements made by the head of security and Balles acknowledged that he had employed “an extremely poor word choice.” He added: "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.”
When Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham finally weighed in with an email — dispatched more than a week after the alleged assault took place — she acknowledged “we have much more work to do.”
Students, staffers and parents already knew that.
They also knew that their elected representatives needed to step up.
When the new School Board assembled last week, the members released a letter stating: “We want you to know we hear students, teachers and families as they come forward with strategies and solutions that exhibit the courage it takes to face the tragedy that has taken place in our school. We are here to serve, to empower our community to make change, and to uplift and strengthen education.”
The letter was read aloud by recently elected board member Ali Muldrow, who was publicly sworn in April 29 along with two other new members: Ananda Mirilli and Cris Carusi.
We give Muldrow and the board credit for highlighting the letter. This indicates a level of engagement that is needed.
It also inspires confidence that these board members know their reassuring words must be followed with concrete action.
To this end, we would suggest that the School Board get specific.
For instance, the letter from the board members did not mention the unsettling initial response from Balles, or the fact that teachers and staff at East High have called for disciplinary measures to be taken against the security chief.
Nor did the letter consider the slow public response from Cheatham.
We understand that board members may be disinclined to air personnel matters. But a full and meaningful response to students and staffers must recognize that concerns exist.
It also must acknowledge that East is not an outlier, as recent reports of incidents at La Follette High School make clear.
The message from the educators at East called for mandatory training for security personnel on sexual assault and rape culture. That would be a good first step.
A good second step would be for the board to embrace the wise counsel coming from students such as Memorial High School senior Kari Larson. “Many youth have already endured sexual abuse or rape by the time they are 12. Having the Rape Crisis Center come in during 10th-grade health classes is not enough,” explained Larson. “In addition, these presentations must be improved or extended to not only cover healthy relationships or consent as they do now, but also a detailed plan about how to get help at school if one has been sexually assaulted.”
Taking action, especially action that is informed by the ideas of students and teachers, confirms a commitment on the part of the board to setting standards and demanding accountability.
In their letter to students, staff and the community, the School Board members noted, “As Madison’s first School Board made up entirely of women, we are committed to ushering our community into the future by working to end sexual violence in our schools.”
That future cannot be derailed or delayed. Madison Metropolitan School District students and staff must know that their safety will be ensured by School Board members and administrators who recognize that insecurity and uncertainty pose a threat to the promise that every child in this city will receive a great education.
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