About 14 years ago, school board candidate Michael Flores climbed into a green Plymouth Neon that was left idling outside a Middleton hotel with the keys in the ignition.
The car’s owner — whom Flores didn’t know — was inside the hotel delivering pizza when Flores drove away. Flores, who said he was intoxicated at the time, was arrested after police found him and the car about 20 miles away in east Madison, according to court records.
Flores, who was 22 at the time, pleaded guilty in 2000 to taking and driving a vehicle without the owner’s consent and was accepted to the Dane County District Attorney’s deferred prosecution program for first-time offenders. After about nine months of counseling and paying back the pizza deliveryman’s lost wages as part of the program, the felony charge against Flores was dismissed in 2001.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Flores. “It really showed me how fragile freedom can be. You make a mistake and it can be the end of your life as you know it. It was very scary. I have to kind of breathe sometimes. … I still feel that. It’s good to remember because it keeps you from making the same mistake.”
Bringing that kind of focus on rehabilitation instead of retribution when it comes to disciplining students was a common theme for Flores and retired Madison police Lt. Wayne Strong during their previous unsuccessful Madison School Board races. And it’s an issue they agree on now as they compete for a seat on the board being vacated by Marj Passman.
Without it, Flores could not have been hired by the Madison Fire Department in 2001, nor been able to pursue an elected seat on the School Board, if he had been convicted.
“People make mistakes. It’s how we treat them in society afterward,” Flores said. “We build them up to be part of the community and learn, or we tear them down and they have to work in the shadows.
“It happens to kids quite often. (They) become involved in a minor altercation and somehow that can develop into assault or something beyond, and then you get tagged – and you essentially go down that slide.”
Flores and Strong said a discipline model that promises a second chance if students agree to learn how their actions affect others and how to make amends would be far more effective than simply taking students out of school.
“It keeps (students) in school but it goes even further than that,” Strong said. “It helps to repair the harm that has been done to the victim. ... We’ve got to look at that, especially if we continue to have these astronomical rates of suspensions” among black students.
Flores said the 2000 incident — the only time he has been charged with a crime — “propelled” him into a career of public service as a firefighter and a paramedic.
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“It made me stronger,” Flores said. “Unfortunately, a lot of times people don’t have opportunities to make mistakes and turn their lives around. … I was fortunate to have a support system that helped me through a very hard time.”
Similar restorative steps, he said, would especially help students who may not have a support system that can steer them away from life-altering mistakes.
“If you are not of privilege, you get thrown into an ocean full of sharks and most likely, you’ll drown,” he said. “I do believe kids are our future, and to brand them like that is doing a disservice to the community.”
Strong, who said he grew up in a single-parent home in Racine, said he knew the way to break the cycle of poverty was education.
As a result, Strong said a key issue in his campaign is moving away from discipline that removes students from the classroom and toward restorative justice policies, like those the school board is working on as part of a revamped code of conduct for students.
“I always look at education as the great equalizer. I’m a real testament to that — that’s why I encourage young kids to stay in school,” he said.
While working in the Madison Police Department’s East District, Strong supervised officers based in high schools.
He said the restorative justice models of student discipline he saw at La Follette and East high schools and their associated middle schools can help close the gap in academic achievement between black students and white students in addition to addressing the disparate rates of suspensions among black students in the Madison School
Strong said many of the students suspended from schools end up in the juvenile justice system and ultimately fill adult prisons.
“It’s the education piece of this that we really need to focus on,” Strong said. “If these kids aren’t in the classroom, how are we going to close that gap? One of the ways I think we can get at that is making sure we are not just kicking kids out of school and saying you’re out on your own.”