The Madison School District staffer involved in an altercation with an 11-year-old girl at Whitehorse Middle School last month will not be charged with a crime, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said Tuesday.
Since the Feb. 13 incident, supporters of the girl and her family have said the staffer punched the girl and pulled out some of her braids in an overzealous response to a classroom disruption.
But police records released Tuesday quote several witnesses saying the girl grew combative as she was being “guided” out of the classroom and began swinging her fists at the staffer’s head and chest before he tried to put her in a bear hug and they tumbled to the floor.
“I am aware of public narratives about this incident,” Ozanne said at a midday news conference. “Some members of our community have coupled this information with their own experience, drawing conclusions that are simply wrong.”
According to police reports, the girl and the staff member, positive behavior support coach Robert Mueller-Owens, each said the other initiated physical contact. Mueller-Owens is white and the girl is black, and the incident came as the community has been buffeted by a string of incidents this school year in which teachers used racial slurs in front of students.
But police could not determine from surveillance video of part of the incident who initiated the fight and said it appeared the two and a third staffer ended up falling to the floor because they tripped over one another.
The Madison School District continues to investigate whether school policies were violated.
“Based on the DA’s decision, we will now use all available information from the police reports to understand every fact, and take appropriate action,” district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said. “The employee will remain on leave while we complete our review and determine next steps.”
Strauch-Nelson said all staff involved in behavior response receive training in nonviolent crisis intervention, a national model on how to safely manage and prevent difficult behavior.
Last week, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham issued a “letter to the community” in which she called the incident at Whitehorse “especially horrific” and said that “No matter what comes out of the police investigation, there was a failure on our part.”
The district has said Mueller-Owens will not return to Whitehorse.
Outside the conference room where Tuesday’s press conference was held, the girl’s mother and grandmother, Mikiea and Laronda Price, assailed Ozanne’s decision not to charge Mueller-Owens and claimed the investigation was unfair.
“There is no way he is going to get away with this,” Laronda Price said of Ozanne. “He already had his decision made. He was not going to arrest that white man.”
Mikiea Price and Mount Zion Baptist Church pastor Marcus Allen said much the same at their own press conference earlier Tuesday at the church before Ozanne, who is black, announced no charges would be filed.
Mikiea Price alleged the school did not call the police, child protective services or her after the incident.
“When I did get in contact with the police, we had a child that stated she was abused, we had a teacher witness it ... and we also had a video of half of an incident that shows abuse, and this man still hasn’t been arrested,” she said.
Police reports released Tuesday, however, paint a more complicated picture.
According to the reports:
Teacher Barbara Pietz said the 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.
A police officer who first reviewed video from a camera stationed in the classroom hallway said it was difficult to see what happened from the camera’s angle, but that it didn’t appear either the girl or Mueller-Owens started 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 braids (the reports also describe them as 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.”
Allen, who had seen the video of the incident before Tuesday’s announcement, said he saw a man “bull-rushing a child from out of the classroom into the hallway and hitting a wall and then down to the floor.”
Ozanne said police did not find probable cause to recommend charges against Mueller-Owens, but that he asked for further investigation in the case.
Hundreds turn out
Controversy surrounding the incident spilled over at a Madison School Board meeting last week, when hundreds of people turned out to protest, forcing the board to conduct business in a closed room away from the crowd.
Tension had already been building as the community learned of six teachers or substitute teachers this school year who used racial slurs in front of students. Those teachers resigned or were dismissed.
Cheatham said last week that in addition to reviewing existing policies, the school district will create a system for parents to report alleged racist incidents and discrimination, and require all staff to receive training on racial bias and equity.
In response, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County president and CEO Michael Johnson urged Cheatham to consider creating a “Parent Ombudsman Office” that would be independent of the school district and would operate a “24-hour hotline with trained parent ambassadors who will serve as a support system for parents and students impacted by these incidents.” He also called for the creation of a “local school council” for each school that would represent the school’s students and community.
State Journal reporter Logan Wroge contributed to this report.