Madison School Board candidates offered a range of reactions to a physical altercation between a middle school student and a former district employee, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
The incident at Whitehorse Middle School has drawn an emotional and passionate response from community members. At a packed School Board meeting last month, several people blamed board members for not doing enough to prevent such an incident.
In response to questions from the Wisconsin State Journal about the incident, Seat 3 candidate Cristiana Carusi said the situation “reflects systemic failure across institutions in our community,” while her opponent, Kaleem Caire, said he is left wondering what the district and the student’s family could have done to proactively prevent the “painful and unfortunate situation for everyone involved.”
In the Seat 4 race, David Blaska called for students to give higher levels of respect to their teachers whereas Ali Muldrow said the community needs to respect the student when discussing the incident.
Incumbent TJ Mertz, who is seeking a third term to Seat 5, largely declined to comment on the incident because he is a current board member. Challenger Ananda Mirilli criticized what she saw as a slow response by the district and a failure by the justice system.
According to an 80-page police report on the investigation, positive behavior support coach Robert Mueller-Owens was called to a classroom on the morning of Feb. 13 for a girl who refused to go to her seat; she was speaking with friends and listening to music.
Mueller-Owens, who is white, tried to get the girl, who is black, to leave the classroom. She said he pushed her out of the door and punched her. He said the girl tried to slam the door on her way out; he stopped it with his foot, and she began to swing at his head.
Mueller-Owens resigned last week. He and the school district agreed to a separation agreement under which he’ll receive his salary and other benefits through the end of the school year and health insurance coverage until the end of 2019.
The day after the incident became public, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham wrote an “open letter to the community” in which she promised a new system for reporting racism and discrimination and required training for staff on racial bias and equity. She called the Whitehorse incident “especially horrific.”
In announcing a decision earlier this month not to file charges against Mueller-Owens, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said “some members of our community have coupled this information with their own experience, drawing conclusions that are simply wrong.”
Ozanne said police did not find probable cause a crime had been committed, but he asked to further review the case.
Mirilli, a consultant at the state Department of Public Instruction, called Ozanne’s decision “awful” and questioned what the recourse is for the parent after the school district and criminal justice system “failed.”
“That was a tragedy that is still happening to people. People are still hurting from this thing that happened. Why is the (school) district not holding spaces for people to talk about it, holding spaces to hold the (school) district accountable? Instead, people have to protest once a month,” Mirilli said, referring to the monthly School Board meetings.
Mertz said the board’s role in a situation like the Whitehorse incident is “to look at, number one, the situation that created these circumstances and what role we have in providing different supports and different procedures.”
According to the police report, Mueller-Owens told investigators he had interacted with the student earlier in the day related to misbehavior in a first period class, and he thought their meeting ended on a positive note. He said the girl was excited about Mueller-Owens suggesting a color-coded flashcard system to express her needs if she was overcome with emotions.
Mertz said sometimes there is a disconnect between support staff and classroom staff when a student might be ready to return to a classroom.
“This may point that that student wasn’t ready to return to the classroom and that disconnect is there,” he said.
Carusi said the district’s top priority moving forward “must be to ensure incidents like this don’t happen.”
Carusi, an associate communications director at the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, took issue with Ozanne’s request for child protective service records regarding the student and her family, which was ultimately denied, saying “the District Attorney’s Office added to the stress by seeking irrelevant records.”
She said having more social workers, psychologists and nurses to address emotional and mental health could prevent similar incidents, along with giving families and staff “a stronger voice in addressing behavior challenges in our hallways and classrooms.”
Caire, founder and CEO of independent Madison charter One City Schools, said after reading the police report, he found the student’s behavior and action before the altercation to be “unacceptable.” Caire added there were other ways Mueller-Owens could have handled the situation “that would have avoided him putting his hands on the student.”
“The worst thing we can do is avoid talking about this incident, or worse, fighting with each other about who was right and who was wrong,” he said. “Madison clearly has challenges. We have to address them, not avoid them.”
To prevent similar incidents in the future, Blaska, a conservative blogger and former Dane County Board supervisor, said faith and opinion leaders need to tell children to “remove the ear buds, listen to your teachers, do your homework and quit making excuses.”
He said district administrators should “quit throwing their teachers under the school bus.”
“Teachers did not sign up to be insulted, sprayed, pummeled, their glasses broken or their classrooms disrupted on a regular basis,” Blaska said.
Muldrow, co-executive director of GSAFE, said the incident should continue to be discussed in a transparent manner “with the utmost respect for the child who was directly impacted.”