A longtime Madison Metropolitan School District educator has been placed on leave and is under both school district and police investigation after allegedly pushing, punching and pulling hair out of the head of an African American 11-year-old girl at Whitehorse Middle School last week, Madison365 has learned.
The girl’s mother, Mikiea Price, said she has seen security video of the February 13 incident, which she said shows Rob Mueller-Owens, 52, throwing her daughter to the ground and punching her before another teacher covers the girl with her own body to protect her.
“As a District we take any situation of this nature very seriously,” MMSD Representative Rachel Strauch-Nelson said in a statement. “All of our students need to be safe and supported in school, and we have a thorough investigation process and protocol that we follow. While we cannot talk about the details of a specific student or personnel situation, it is our responsibility to consider all of the facts of the situation and determine the right next steps.
“The staff person was put on leave while the situation was investigated. Based on that investigation, the staff person will not return to Whitehorse Middle School, and we are determining next steps. In addition, our team is coming together to create a full support plan to ensure that students are safe and fully supported at school.”
Mueller-Owens is the seventh educator to be caught up in racial incidents at Madison schools since November 1. Four teachers and two substitutes have been terminated or forced to resign after using racial slurs in class over the last three and a half months. Additionally, in Middleton, a school bus driver was terminated last fall for striking a black child and a high school teacher resigned after using a racial slur in class.
Price, herself a substitute teacher in the district for the past five years, told Madison365 in an exclusive interview that her daughter, a sixth-grader at Whitehorse Middle School, called her last Wednesday and was clearly upset.
“She was just like … crying and extremely upset,” Price said. “I could tell, like by the way she was crying and talking, that something traumatic had just happened.” She said her daughter told her, “Mr. Rob hurt me,” referring to Mueller-Owens.
Price said she immediately went to the school where three adults were speaking with her daughter about what had happened.
“She was crying and her lip was cracked, bleeding, and she handed me three of her braids that were pulled out from her scalp,” Price said.
Price said a classroom teacher had called on Mueller-Owens, who is dean of students and was acting principal that day, because Price’s daughter and another student had sprayed too much perfume or body spray on themselves and each other. When Mueller-Owens asked the girl to leave the room, she initially refused, and things apparently escalated.
“When he came in, he asked (my daughter) to step out and she didn’t listen, and didn’t step out and as he walked toward her, she said she went toward the window and just wasn’t following direction, and he told her in front of the whole class, to the teacher, ‘Take the class somewhere else,’” Price said. “And (my daughter) said, ‘No, that’s fine. They can stay, I’ll go.’ And as she was heading out, she said he pushed (her) with two hands trying to push her out the classroom, and she turned around and said, ‘Don’t put your hands on me.’ And he pushed her again … and she said he started punching her.”
She said the video, which she reviewed on Friday along with her mother, as well as Pastor Marcus Allen of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Ruben Anthony, did not capture what happened in the classroom but does show what happened in the hallway.
“I didn’t see the punching but on the actual video that I was able to review on Friday from the school district, I did see him throwing her down,” Price said. “And you see another teacher that I also spoke with that said that she had to lay on top of (my daughter) to prevent her from getting hit or punched.”
Strauch-Nelson said the school district intends to release the video later this week, after police conclude their investigation. Madison365 has not viewed the video but has requested to do so. Allen corroborated Price’s account of the video to Madison365. Allen also said the man in the video resembles a photo of Mueller-Owens, and that in meetings, school district staff had referred to the man as “Rob.”
Price said she called police on Wednesday, and followed up on Friday after viewing the video to ask why Mueller-Owens had not been arrested.
“The police told me that I said that I didn’t want to press charges, and that’s not true. I never said that. That’s the whole point of me calling the police,” Price said. “I told (the police officer) I wanted to press charges, and when I told him that he turned around and told me (Monday), if I press charges on the teacher than my daughter is facing charges as well for disorderly conduct.”
Madison Police Department spokesman Joel Despain declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.
“I know those investigating want to talk with more school staff members before reaching conclusions,” Despain said in an email to Madison365 Tuesday morning, and Wednesday said officers were still looking to interview more witnesses.
Mueller-Owens’ public persona is that of an educator committed to positive behavior reinforcement and restorative justice, and he seems to have positive connections with many community leaders.
On his Facebook page, which has now been deleted or hidden, Mueller-Owens listed his title as “Director of Culture and Climate” at Madison Metropolitan School District. His LinkedIn profile lists his current position as Positive Behavior Support Coach and Coordinator of Academic and Career Planning. Online records indicate he started as a teacher at Malcolm Shabazz City High School in 2000 and a Teacher/Coordinator at the Transition Learning Center from 2008-2014. He then moved to East High School, where from August 2014 until June 2015 he was Positive Behavioral Specialist and held “community-building circles regularly,” as part of his approach “in which participants are guided in candid, confidential discussion,” to help strengthen student-teacher relationships according to an MMSD article where his work on restorative circles was amplified. He was later Interim Assistant Principal at Madison West before moving to Whitehorse in November 2017. Most recent public State records indicate he earned $93,303 per year in that role.
The Capital Times reported that he attended a conference on “Rethinking School Discipline” with MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and Elementary Schools Chief Nancy Hanks in 2015. In a 2016 Q&A with Madison Magazine, he touted the virtues of restorative justice as a means of school discipline.
“Healing happens in a relationship, and that is what we often miss,” he said in that interview. “There are incredible demands placed on teachers, and most non-teachers do not understand the emotionally grueling work that every teacher experiences on a daily basis. The real power of restorative practices (which include circles, restorative dialogues and mediation) is that they are all predicated upon restoring meaningful relationships so that common goals can be accomplished. In our setting, that common goal happens to be education.”
Just last November, he told online news site Madison Commons that greater understanding of cultural differences is required when it comes to school discipline.
“The dominant culture lacks an understanding of how other cultures interact with each other,” Mueller-Owens said in that article. “Sometimes there are different ways of working together. And those differences allow for those disparities to exist. We need to work together more often. There is a lot of misunderstanding in Madison about diverse cultural ways of being.”
Price said Mueller-Owens’ background just means he should have known better.
“If he has all that training, why would you approach that and why, when a kid told you don’t touch me, why did you come and meet them with more force?” she said.
“It’s very frustrating, you know,” Price said. “Even as a mom, like I can’t protect her. This is an educator. This is not a kid that jumped on her. And you’ve got to be patient and talk to the parents. This is an educator.”
Whitehorse Middle School, near Olbrich Park on Madison’s east side, has a student body that is 46 percent white and 21 percent Black. Overall, MMSD is about 42 percent white and 17 percent Black.
A districtwide program to celebrate and encourage “Black Excellence” launched last fall.
Multiple attempts to reach Mueller-Owens by phone, email and social media were unsuccessful. Other teachers and witnesses identified by Price also did not respond to phone and email messages, nor did Madison Teachers Inc officials.
This story has been updated to reflect that Dean of Students is a teaching position, not an administrative one.