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Madison School Board

Community activist Brandi Grayson delivers remarks about a recent incident involving an 11-year-old African-American student and a white staff member at Whitehorse Middle School before Monday's meeting of the Madison School Board. The din of protesters forced the board to conduct its meeting in a closed room with a video feed provided to the public.

Madison police have finished their investigation into an incident at Whitehorse Middle School in which a staff member allegedly punched and pulled the hair of a student but are not saying whether they are recommending charges.

Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Friday the results of the investigation have been turned over to Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, and it will be up to his office to determine if charges would be filed.

Ozanne’s office did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

The incident happened Feb. 13 at the middle school, when positive behavior coach Robert Mueller-Owens allegedly pushed, punched and pulled the hair of an 11-year-old girl. Mueller-Owens is white, and the girl is black.

According to the online news site Madison365, which first reported on the incident, a teacher called Mueller-Owens to a classroom because the girl and another student were spraying too much perfume. The interaction eventually moved to a hallway where a security camera captured part of the incident.

Mueller-Owens was put on leave and school district officials said he would not return to the East Side school.

Controversy surrounding the incident spilled over at a Madison School Board meeting Monday night, when hundreds of people turned out to protest, forcing the board to conduct business in a closed room away from the crowd.

Tension had already been building as the community learned of six teachers and substitute teachers this school year who used racial slurs in front of students. Those teachers resigned or were dismissed.

On Thursday, school district Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham issued an open letter to the community, promising training to staff on racial bias and equity, as well as a new system for reporting racism and discrimination.

Chatham called the slurs “indefensible” and the Whitehorse incident “especially horrific.”

The Rev. Marcus Allen, pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, who viewed the security camera footage with the girl’s mother, said it shows a man “forcibly pushing” a student out of a classroom from one side of the hallway to the other. Both the student and man fall to the ground, he said, and after about 20 to 30 seconds another adult appears to intervene.

“No matter what comes out of the police investigation, there was a failure on our part,” Cheatham said in her letter. “We will review every fact to understand what happened so that we can take aggressive action.”

Boys & Girls Club of Dane County president and CEO Michael Johnson is urging Cheatham to consider creating a “Parent Ombudsman Office” that would be independent of the school district and would operate a “24-hour hotline with trained parent ambassadors who will serve as a support system for parents and students impacted by these incidents.” He also called for the creation of a “local school council” for each school that would represent the school’s students and community.

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