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Proposal would give Madison School Board decision in staff discipline for 'racial incidents'
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Proposal would give Madison School Board decision in staff discipline for 'racial incidents'

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Following the temporary termination of a black West High School security guard in October, which prompted a walkout and protest outside the district headquarters, the School Board said it would review the informal policy that led to Marlon Anderson being fired.

The Madison School District is proposing an investigative process into “racial incidents,” such as the the use of racial slurs by staff members, in which the School Board would determine if and how an employee is disciplined.

District staff presented recommendations on how to respond to and investigate racial incidents during a special meeting of the School Board on Saturday. The proposal would build in board discretion on discipline for such cases.

The proposal follows the temporary termination this fall of a black West High School security guard after he said the N-word when telling a student not to call him the slur, which drew international attention and had many people arguing the district did not take into account the context of the situation.

“I’m not going to belabor the background, we all know we’ve had several racial incidents last year,” Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, the district’s head of human resources, said during the board meeting. “Some of those were involving staff to students, staff to staff, and students to staff.”

Last school year, former Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham put in place an informal zero-tolerance policy on the use of racial slurs by staff, regardless of the circumstance or context of the use.

At least seven employees were fired or resigned in 2018-19 under the district’s practice.

As part of the proposal to revise the informal policy, the district drafted a flowchart outlining the steps after a racial incident is alleged.

When an incident is reported, the staff person would be put on leave as it is investigated.

During the investigation, the complainant would be interviewed, witnesses identified and interviewed, any video evidence would be gathered, and an employee statement would be collected.

After the investigation, the district’s human resources office would determine whether an allegation is substantiated.

Hargrove-Krieghoff said this is similar to how human resources looks into alleged employee misconduct of any type.

The difference in what the district is proposing differently is that a disciplinary recommendation in a substantiated racial incident would then be forwarded to the School Board to make an ultimate decision.

The levels of discipline could be: No action, a letter of expectations, a letter of reprimand, suspension, reassignment or termination. The employee would still have the right to file an appeal to the board or go through an official grievance process.

Along with a disciplinary decision, the district is proposing a formalized process for a “restorative action plan” with the goals of transforming the employee’s behavior, responding to harm and supporting those involved.

It could include decisions on how the incident is communicated to the public, what supports are in place for students and families, and a principal-developed remediation plan for the employee involved, if the person is not fired.

School Board member Ali Muldrow said the term “racial incident” could be interpreted broadly, adding the district’s longstanding racial achievement gap could be viewed by some as a racial incident.

Hargrove-Krieghoff said district staff didn’t want to limit the investigative and response process solely to instances where staff use slurs, as other actions can be interpreted as racial incidents.

Lisa Kvistad, the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said a definition of a racial incident included in one of the documents about the proposal is what district staff believe is the best shot at specifying what qualifies as such.

It reads: Any incident that anyone perceives as being motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race.

“The work that we are embarking on is incredibly complex work, which means that there is no known solution for this work,” Hargrove-Krieghoff said.

With a broad definition, board member Savion Castro suggested the determination of whether something is a racial incident could be left up to the discretion of human resources staff doing the investigation.

The proposal on racial incidents was prompted by the Oct. 16 firing of Marlon Anderson from his security position at West High School.

Earlier that month, Anderson was helping with a disruptive student, who is also black, when the student repeatedly called Anderson the N-word and other obscenities. Anderson said he told the student several times not to use the word, including a phrase like “do not call me a (N-word),” using the actual word instead.

Following criticism and a student-led walkout, interim Superintendent Jane Belmore overturned Anderson’s termination less than a week later, and School Board President Gloria Reyes said the district would review its practice on the use of slurs.

Saturday’s discussion also came the same week the Madison teachers union announced an independent hearing officer’s determined there was “no just cause” for disciplining a social worker who used the N-word during a staff meeting last spring.

Sandra Rivera, a bilingual social worker at the district’s dual-language immersion charter school, Nuestro Mundo Elementary, said in October she was disciplined after she used the word to make a point at a staff meeting.

Rivera, who identified herself a “black Puerto Rican,” said during a March meeting on professional development to further the district’s black excellence goal, she asked how staff could prepare themselves to address issues of students using racial slurs.

She said another person at the meeting expressed surprise students used such language. Wanting to be clear, Rivera said, she quoted a recent example of a student using the N-word, repeating the actual word.

In a Dec. 17 decision, hearing officer Dennis McGilligan recommended the district rescind a disciplinary suspension taken against Rivera, saying her “use of the N word ... was to discourage its use.”

The district plans to gather feedback on the proposed response to racial incidents throughout the remainder of the month and into early February before seeking an OK from the board to put it into place.

The School Board met Saturday for a “retreat” meeting, which take place a few times throughout the year, during which members also discussed planning for two potential referendums eyed for the November ballot.


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