The Madison School District employee involved in a scuffle with an unruly student last month — and who was later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the incident — has resigned, the district said Friday.
Positive behavior support coach Robert Mueller-Owens was accused of punching and pulling hair extensions out of the head of an 11-year-old girl on Feb. 13 at Whitehorse Middle School on the East Side.
The girl is black and Mueller-Owens is white. The incident came after six cases this year in which teachers used the N-word in front of students. Those teachers have resigned as well, although the Madison teachers union said Friday the word was never used against a student or meant to be derogatory.
In a statement in response to Mueller-Owens’ resignation, the School Board said: “We are fully committed to creating welcoming and safe schools for all, where every child is valued and cared for, and we are more resolved than ever to move forward in that work. It is our responsibility to support our students of color and to create the environments that all of our students deserve. We are committed to this work in our role as board decision makers and as representatives of our community.”
District Attorney Ismael Ozanne on March 6 declined to file charges against Mueller-Owens, saying: “I am aware of public narratives about this incident. … Some members of our community have coupled this information with their own experience, drawing conclusions that are simply wrong.”
The week before, district Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham called the incident involving Mueller-Owens “especially horrific” and said “no matter what comes out of the police investigation, there was a failure on our part.”
As part of a separation agreement Mueller-Owens and the district signed Wednesday, the district agreed to continue paying him his regular salary and other benefits through the end of this school year, and to continue health insurance coverage through the end of 2019.
It also includes provisions barring the district and Mueller-Owens from disparaging or suing each other in the future.
The agreement is similar to one signed in November by the district and the first teacher reported to have used the N-word in front of a student, although that one did not commit the district to paying the teacher through the school year.
An attempt to reach Mueller-Owens for comment was unsuccessful.
Only one of six candidates on the April 2 ballot for three School Board seats responded Friday afternoon to a request for comment on the resignation.
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David Blaska, the lone conservative in the race, said Cheatham and the School Board “rushed to judgment” and “threw (Mueller-Owens) under the school bus before talking to him or to a single teacher or student witness.”
According to police reports of the Whitehorse incident released last week:
Teacher Barbara Pietz said the 11-year-old girl earlier that day had stuck her hand in her classroom and sprayed Febreze air freshener. Pietz, who told police she has a fragrance sensitivity, said she closed the door to keep the odor out, but the girl came by and sprayed the room again.
In the next period, the girl arrived late for her class and refused instructions to go to her seat, instead sitting with friends, listening to music and disrupting the class.
The teacher called special education assistant Tammy Gue to the classroom for help. Gue, in turn, called in Mueller-Owens, who tried to guide the girl out into the hallway.
She eventually agreed to leave and told police that Mueller-Owens pushed her out the door of the classroom and started punching her. Mueller-Owens told police that as she was leaving the room, she tried to slam the door but he stopped it with his foot, and when he followed her out of the classroom, she started punching him in the head and chest.
To the floor
A police officer who first reviewed video from a camera in the classroom hallway said it was difficult to see what happened from the camera’s angle, but that it didn’t appear either was punching the other.
“I was able to see Mueller-Owens facing (the girl) and walking her out of the classroom door to the lockers,” Officer Druri Tobias wrote. “Once at the lockers, Gue tries to intervene and all three of them end up falling onto the floor. It didn’t look like Mueller-Owens intentionally flipped (the girl) over and body slammed her. It looked like they all tripped and fell on top of each other.”
At some point, witnesses said, three of the girl’s braided hair extensions got pulled out. Witnesses did not report seeing Mueller-Owens pull on her hair, but Gue speculated that “when the hands started flying Mueller-Owens caught (the girl’s) braids.”