Two of the incidents last year in which a Madison Metropolitan School District staff member was disciplined for using a racial slur are currently being appealed, Madison Teachers Inc. executive director Doug Keillor said Tuesday.
The district adopted a “zero tolerance” practice for the use of racial slurs last year in the midst of seven reported incidents in which one was used by a staff member. That practice has come under fire over the past week as West High School security guard Marlon Anderson was fired for using the n-word, in what he said was telling a student who had called him the word not to use it.
Anderson, whose firing drew public opposition and led to more than 1,000 students and staff walking out of the school on Friday, was reinstated Monday, though his actual return to the school remains under negotiation as they work out a transition plan.
MTI had filed a grievance on behalf of Anderson following his firing, and the district and MTI had agreed to a Nov. 12 hearing with an independent hearing officer prior to the district rescinding his termination. That hearing is normally the third step in the grievance process outlined in the employee handbook.
Keillor said one of the employees appealing their case had a hearing in September, while the other has one set for December.
Keillor said those two staff members initially decided against sharing their stories publicly, but that may change.
One of the staff members used the n-word in a staff meeting while asking staff about how to police students’ use of the word while advancing black excellence in the school, and the staff member in that case received a suspension, Keillor said. The second case, in which a staff member was fired, involved a teacher explaining to a student why they could not play a song they were listening to, which used the word as a lyric, Keillor said.
He’s hopeful the Anderson situation has changed the considerations for the district.
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“We’re hoping the district actually considers the context of their situation in light of this,” Keillor said. “Our focus in the last week has been correcting the injustice against Marlon, getting him back to work as soon as possible. Now that we have a spotlight really with a very specific case of showing why zero tolerance, no context policies, why they make no sense, I think the next step is the School Board, administration, the union, our community really weighing in on what they want the policy to be."
Interim superintendent Jane Belmore said Monday shortly after the rescinding of the Anderson termination was announced that she was unsure whether it would affect the cases from last year. District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said in an email she could not comment on "other personnel matters or appeals."
Statements from Belmore and School Board president Gloria Reyes have indicated the district plans to reconsider the zero tolerance approach, though both stressed they wanted to keep an anti-racist lens in any practice.
"Going forward, we will review our practice and we remain dedicated to protecting our students and staff from harm by implementing practices that are reflective of the humanity involved," Reyes said in her statement. "We will grapple with complexity and assess it through a lens of deep racial equity."
The discipline process includes an initial grievance to the employee’s supervisor. They can then appeal that decision to the district’s director of human resources.
If they remain unsatisfied, the staff member can request an independent hearing officer, who must be agreed to by the district and the representative for the staff member. The officer can convene a hearing, administer oaths, issue subpoenas and decide if a transcript is necessary, according to the handbook.
“The IHO may require the parties to submit grievance documents and witness lists in advance of the hearing to expedite the hearing,” the handbook states. “The IHO shall decide disputed facts based on ‘a preponderance of the evidence’ standard.”
That decision can be appealed to the Madison School Board, which has the final say.
The grievance process can take months, as each stage has timelines outlined allowing for the person making the decision to consider information, though if the district and grievant agree, stages can be bypassed.
“While this is a process for an employee to seek justice, it is a lengthy process,” Keillor said the day Anderson’s grievance was filed.
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