East High School

Dozens of East High School teachers and staff are calling on the Madison School District to discipline its head of security for comments he made during a news report this week that some have criticized as downplaying sexual assault.

A letter Friday signed by 73 East High staffers criticizes Joe Balles, the district’s safety and security coordinator, who used the phrase “kids will be kids” during a news report that followed an alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old female student inside the school building last week by two 15-year-old boys.

In a statement Tuesday, Balles acknowledged he “made an extremely poor word choice.” He said his comments were directed generally toward ensuring children are safe inside school buildings when the school day ends, adding “it is never OK to rationalize, minimize or excuse sexual assault, and there is no excuse for my words.”

The letter from East High staff also calls out Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham for a perceived lack of response on her part in “repairing the harm done to our school community.”

Cheatham sent a letter to school district families and staff Friday evening, although spokeswoman Liz Merfeld said it was not a direct response to the letter from the high school’s staff. In her letter, Cheatham thanked the high school’s community for contacting her about its concerns and harm caused by minimizing the significance or severity of sexual assault and outlined steps the district is taking.

During a WISC-TV segment Monday on security in schools after class hours and preventing rape, Balles said: “Our buildings are full of kids, and kids will be kids. 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 letter from East High staff said Balles’ comments “not only minimized the impact of this incident on the victim but also for all of those who work and go to school at East.”

“We acknowledge Balles’ efforts to correct his statements, but the impact of his initial words can never be erased,” the letter said. “For a person in his position, it is unacceptable to stumble when discussing sexual assault.”

Balles’ comments and previous lack of response by Cheatham, the letter said, “have multiplied the trauma the East School community has been forced to endure.”

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In a separate letter Friday, the East High’s Gender Equity Club said: “A person who holds these beliefs cannot protect students from future sexual violence.”

High school staff are calling on the district to:

  • Implement “disciplinary measures” against Balles.
  • Require security personnel be trained in sexual assault, teen dating violence, consent and rape culture.
  • Mandate professional development for all staff on sexual assault, teen dating violence, consent and rape culture.
  • Develop a safety and security plan to address the culture and climate within East High School that resulted in the alleged rape.

Cheatham, in her letter, said the school district is working:

  • To “swiftly” respond to any incident and provide support services to anyone in need.
  • To make sure students know their rights and have a trusted adult to talk to.
  • To teach students and staff about sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape culture and consent.
  • To strengthen the health curriculum to teach about consent and sexual conduct in “age-appropriate ways.”

“We’re also working alongside student leaders and advocates to make sure we are doing better and better in our schools and in our community,” Cheatham wrote.

Balles did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Amanda Pustz, a teacher at East High School who sent the letter, said the staff members don’t feel it is their place to determine what constitutes “disciplinary measures,” but are calling for Balles to be held accountable.

The two boys have been charged in juvenile court with felony second-degree sexual assault, along with other charges.

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