Another Madison Metropolitan School Board teacher has been suspended for using a racial slur, this time in a staff meeting in the presence of a Black colleague, who now says she should lose her job.
The incident occurred last week at an after school staff meeting at Primary Steps Elementary School, one of the district’s intensive intervention special education schools. No students were present. In an interview Tuesday, special education teacher Kyree Brooks says special education assistant (SEA) Theresa Guelzow used the n-word repeatedly while talking about students at Madison East and their use of the word.
“It started out as a conversation about our … kids, and it turned into a rant with her, with the SEA, who is Caucasian, talking about her kids that she used to work with at East High School,” Brooks said. “It was just all uneasy conversation happening and all of the people in the room were just so uncomfortable and she repeated the N-word several times with the ‘er’ on the end of it. And she stated the word so much that it became offensive and she did admit that she hated it, but then again she felt it was okay to use in my presence as well as in the workplace, which is not okay …There was so much that could’ve been done at that time that could’ve put my job in jeopardy. But I was the bigger person and I walked away, and I let administration know about it right away when I got home.”
Five people were in the room, including Brooks, Guelzow and three others. One of the others confirmed that Guelzow had used the N-word but asked not to be named because she feared she might lose her job for speaking with the media. The others present did not return messages left Wednesday.
In an interview Wednesday, Guelzow said she doesn’t remember saying the N-word but confirmed that she has been suspended without pay.
“There was a group of us after school had left, just as a group of staff and we were all talking and I repeated a phrase that a student said. I don’t remember saying (the N-word), but if they said I did, I did. And one of the colleagues took offense to it and made a formal complaint. And so I was suspended. I went before human resources and they upheld the suspension.”
She maintains that she was just repeating what a student had said to her.
“The whole thing is that we were discussing about how hard it is for kids and the focus was like, hey, we’ve got to just focus on academics, whatever. And I repeated a phrase that a kid had said. The child had used the n-word. And I said, ‘don’t use that word, I find that word to be offensive.’ In this gentleman hearing it, he said that he took offense to me repeating what a student had said and that’s why I was suspended.”
Guelzow said that she couldn’t remember the phrase that she had repeated. Asked whether she could understand why Brooks was upset, she answered simply, “No.”
MMSD spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson confirmed that the incident is under investigation but declined to give further details.
Guelzow said she is suspended pending a restorative justice process that requires her to have a mediated discussion with Brooks, which hasn’t happened yet.
“I have to do a restorative circle with the gentleman who was offended,” she said. “And so on Monday I got a call saying, ‘let’s do this restorative circle.’ So I drove over there and the gentleman said, ‘I’m not ready.’ … I’m just a little bit frustrated because of course, I don’t get paid, and I was ready to do restorative and he’s not.”
“They wanted me to meet with her (Monday),” Brooks said. “They pretty much tried to force me to meet with her yesterday so she can apologize or get anything off her chest. And you know, mentally, this just happened on (last) Wednesday afternoon and I’m still not feeling comfortable about this. … They tried to do a rush job and try to make amends and you know, they didn’t really do it in the right manner. I’ve been in contact with (Chief of Human Resources) Deirdre Hargrove and the higher-ups at Doyle Administration Building just to try and get it brought to justice. And you know they say it’s under investigation…. I just really feel like this issue is going to be flipped under the rug.”
A day after his initial interview with Madison365, the process was moving forward, however. Brooks said he met Wednesday with Rudy Bankston, the district’s restorative justice coach, along with two of the other teachers who were present in the meeting.
“He was very understanding,” Brooks said. “He is still working to provide me the justice I need for this situation.”
“I fell apart because this is not who I am,” Guelzow said. “I’ve got 20 years in the district, I’ve never had an infraction and they said it’s going to stay in my permanent file. I am extremely devastated that this is even to this level because you can look at my whole history with the district. I find that the most offensive word, and that was my point was even if you are of color or mixed, or anything, don’t use that word, period. This is so blown out of proportion that it’s ridiculous. I find it offensive that I’m not even able to go to work, that I can’t do my job. This dictates that I don’t get paid.”
Brooks said he does intend to go through the restorative justice process, even though he believes Guelzow should be fired.
“(The restorative process is) not going to be helpful at all. It’s one of those things where there are some people who just feel entitled. She’s just sick in the mind, I feel, to not even care about how I would feel about what she’s saying. I really don’t feel like it’s going to be very helpful. And that’s another reason why I feel like the consequence shouldn’t just be a suspension until this restorative justice happens. She doesn’t need to be working in our district if that’s her mindset.”
At least seven other teachers or substitutes have lost their jobs or resigned for using racial slurs in the presence of students during the 2018-2019 school year, in addition to the dean of students at Whitehorse who resigned after violently tackling a Black sixth grader and pulling braids out of her hair. Brooks said he’s sure more incidents have occurred but not been made public, in part because teachers of color are afraid to come forward.
In a letter to the community on February 28, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham promised to implement a new system for students and staff to report incidents of racism, but Brooks said no new system exists yet.
“There’s a lot of staff not knowing how to handle situations or there’s no policy in place for (this kind of incident). That’s the main problem that we have in our district,” Brooks said. “We aren’t prepared for these issues to happen so you know, when it does happen it’s like you have to go and find those resources, find your allies, and that’s what I’m really doing right now.”
Cheatham has since announced that she is resigning to take a teaching job at Harvard. Brooks said he has a few ideas for what he’d like to see in the new superintendent.
“I hope that the (new) superintendent is able to strengthen restorative justice efforts in schools. Able to visit sites more frequently and is able to have sit-downs and be able to hear different issues that are going on,” he said. “You know, there’s so much that we have to do as teachers, but one of the most important things is feeling safer in your workplace and I think that’s the number one thing that I would want out of the superintendent.”
Brooks said “it was a tough decision,” but he did renew his contract for the 2019-2020 school year.
“Already there’s a lot of African American male (teachers and staff) who are not being retained in this district because they’re afraid of stepping up towards issues like this,” Brooks said. “This is happening in multiple areas of the district and it just shows how much work needs to be done in our school district. And I just want to use this example, I want to use my situation as an example for other black males who may feel the same way, or black females who may feel uncomfortable, brown individuals, Hispanics, whatever race you may be, I want people to be able to know about these issues that are going on and that we are fighting everyday.”
This isn’t Brooks’ first run-in with the N-word. While an undergraduate student at UW-Whitewater and vice president of the Black Student Union there, Brooks started a campaign called Stop the Slur in response to a number of racist incidents.
Guelzow’s teaching license expires June 30, according to state records.