Promising to “work hard and get it right,” Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham issued an “Open Letter to the Community” Thursday in response to a rash of racist and racially-charged incidents at Madison schools.
Since November 1, six teachers or substitutes have resigned or been terminated for using racial slurs, and the Dean of Students at Whitehorse Middle School, Rob Mueller-Owens, is currently on leave after allegedly assaulting a Black 11-year-old sixth grader, throwing her to the ground and pulling three braids out of her head, just over two weeks ago.
Security video captured a portion of the incident, but has not been released, pending the outcome of an ongoing police investigation.
“The series of racial slur incidents that have occurred this school year and caused harm to Black students, their families, and our community are indefensible. They run counter to our core values and our commitment to serving youth and families,” Cheatham wrote. “The most recent incident at Whitehorse Middle School was especially horrific. No matter what comes out of the police investigation, there was a failure on our part. We will review every fact to understand what happened so that we can take aggressive action.”
In an interview with Madison365, she said the district will not only continue to investigate the Whitehorse incident, but also the circumstances that allowed it to occur.
“We’re going to be conducting a deep administrative review to understand if there were signs early on and why didn’t we hear about them,” she said.
She said she’s aware that investigation of these incidents can seem frustratingly slow.
“For both the students and the employee, we want to make sure that we’ve done a thorough investigation so that we cannot only respond to the incident appropriately, but understand everything that led to it and that made it possible. I know it’s so hard for everyone, myself included, but if we rushed too fast through an investigation and we will learn enough to stop something like this from happening in the future. Not every organization is going to take advantage of putting those lessons learned into action. I’ll be real honest. That is our commitment to this community.”
The open letter laid out five initiatives currently underway to address the issues.
- A new system for staff, students, and families to report incidents of racism or discrimination that will launch this spring
- A full review of investigation and critical response protocols to ensure they are culturally responsive, grounded in restoration, and more transparent
- Revision and consistent application of the MMSD equity tool to ensure current and future HR policy and practice, as well as Board policy recommendations, are developed through a racial equity lens
- A refresh of the School Improvement Planning process to ensure that race, rigor and relationships are central to school based decision making
- A new required professional development series for all staff on racial identity, implicit bias, and racial inequity in the United States, along with a refined support and accountability system to monitor progress
She told Madison365 that the new system for reporting incidents of racism will be simpler and more clear than current systems.
“In the current system, there are multiple avenues to reporting incidents,” she said. “We’ve heard from enough people that there’s some confusion about that. We want to make it really clear and simple and easy. There should never be a bureaucracy to get in the way of reporting. That’s incredibly important. I think we’re still figuring it out. What we’re imagining is something like a clear hotline. One direct line to report incidents of racism or discrimination that would result in quick and culturally responsive follow-through on a consistent basis.”
She said the community meetings will begin soon and that the district has already formed a partnership with a local Black-led organization to co-host and facilitate those meetings. She declined to name the organization at this time.
“I don’t think the meetings will be at the Doyle building,” she said. “I think they will be out in the community at various locations.”
Cheatham said the District remains committed to diversifying its faculty and staff, which is 80 percent white while the student body is only 43 percent white, even though the open letter does not focus on that long-term effort.
“The actions that are outlined in the statement are very much immediate, short term actions,” she said. “You know, we have a very aggressive agenda as a school district that is very much focused on racial equity, and that includes a priority around diversification and staff. Certainly that work is as important as ever. These incidents have created a cause to move even faster.
“I would add, just in case it doesn’t come through enough in the letter … just that as an institution we are taking an unapologetic stance that is anti-racist and pro-Black and while it’s so hard to see these incidents come to light, I am hopeful that they will help us create even more urgency and momentum to do the work that we’ve set out to do.”