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Protesters Shut Down School Board Again; Discussion Addresses Parent Letter on Racism in Schools

Protesters sit in the seats of school board members after disrupting a meeting in March. Photo by Robert Chappell.

In a meeting disrupted by protesters, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education discussed but took no action on a list of demands put forward by a group of parents of Black children at its regular meeting Monday.

Last month, the parents submitted a letter, which now has more than 400 signatures, in response to a rash of incidents of racial slurs being used by teachers in schools and a violent incident in which a Whitehorse Middle School administrator threw an 11-year-old sixth grader to the floor and pulled three braids from her head. The letter lists a series of demands, including diversifying staff, required diversity/equity/social justice training, specific anti-racism goals for each school, an end to the school’s contract with the Madison Police Department to place police in schools and new modes of board engagement and communication with the community.

The meeting began with more than 20 speakers, many of whom have spoken at previous meetings over the past two years, linking the presence of police in schools, the Whitehorse Middle School incident in which an administrator assaulted an 11-year-old sixth grader, six incidents since November of teachers using racial slurs in the classroom, and a recent disturbance at Lakeview Library in which police were called on a group of Black middle school students all as examples of the challenges students of color face in what are supposed to be safe spaces.

Speakers repeatedly demanded that police be removed from schools and the $360,000 allocated for Educational Resource Officers be invested in educational programs targeted to benefit youth of color.

“We have a responsibility to act on the behalf of Black youth, since your board is not acting on behalf of Black youth,” said Freedom Inc organizer M. Adams.

“Invest in teachers,” said one student named Ashziana. “Maybe if they got paid they way they’re supposed to, they’d do their job right.”

“I’m here because I’m an old white lady,” said Lauren Bern, the grandmother of an MMSD student. “I’m here to speak maybe in a language you can understand. Police in schools is wrong. Police are only there to intimidate, except when they go over that and cause harm. Police aren’t trained to deal with mental health crises, they’re not trained to deal with trauma. They’re not trained to deal with their own trauma.”

“The decision to keep police in schools seems to be the one instance in which you are ignoring the data,” said parent Tina Hogel, noting that data suggests police in schools has a disproportionately negative effect on students of color.

Several speakers also came to support a proposed funding referendum that could provide funding to improve athletic facilities at Madison West. Those speakers, who were all white, complained about too much chlorine in the pool and soccer fields that were too hard and too inconvenient to get to.

With two public speakers still in line, protesters from Freedom Inc and the Freedom Youth Squad began chanting and singing, prompting the board to adjourn for a five-minute recess.

“We can’t let this board discuss chlorine (in the pool) that makes your hair fall out but not teachers who rip a baby’s hair out” said activist M Adams.

School Board members eventually left the room and protesters took the stage, sitting in the board members’ seats and discussing how they would spend $360,000 to improve education.

After nearly an hour’s disruption, the School Board reconvened in another, closed room, with the meeting streamed by video into the auditorium.

After the final two public speakers made their three-minute comments, Board President Mary Burke opened the meeting for discussion of the racial tensions in the district.

“For the past six months at our board meetings, we’ve had community activists telling the board that they didn’t think we were doing enough with regards to supporting students of color,” Burke said. “This month we received a letter signed by more than 400 parents demanding that we do better, and tonight we heard more comments. As a result, we are going to use this time for the board to discuss, in public, its commitment to this work, steps moving forward and how we can more effective work and engage in the community … As a board, we are not satisfied with the status quo.”

Cheatham then addressed the parents’ letter by listing efforts already underway. She noted that 14 percent of the staff who had left the district in 2018 were people of color whereas 17 percent of the new hires were people of color. Fifty seven percent of the district’s students are people of color.

“As you know, (hiring diverse staff) continues to be a major priority of ours,” Cheatham said, “The research supports that students of color greatly benefit from having teachers of color, and quite honestly all students benefit from having teachers of color. Honestly we don’t have enough (teachers of color) and that is absolutely unequivocal.

Cheatham said African American staff has increased 21 percent over the past five years across all job types, but teaching staff hasn’t changed much.

“The overall composition of teaching staff at MMSD has pretty much stayed at around 13 percent” people of color — and only three percent are African American, she said. “That composition hasn’t improved in any significant way.”

The hiring of 17 percent people of color is a step in the right direction, she said, but “we are not sufficiently holding onto staff of color,” she said, meaning “progress has been incredibly incremental year over year over year.”

She detailed racial equity training and professional development already in place and also new professional development training on the history of racism being implemented in partnership with the YWCA of Greater Madison

“I think the board has to do the same work,” Cheatham said. “I think the board has to do continued professional development on racial equity.”

Cheatham said the School Improvement Plan process should be able to address the parents’ demand for specific anti-racism goals for each school.

Burke invited the two board members of color, Gloria Reyes and the retiring James Howard, to respond. Both Reyes and Howard have supported police in schools in the past.

“I wish we were having this discussion out in our regular board room,” Reyes said. “I was looking forward to actually seeing people face to face and have this engagement that we rarely ever get to have…. I want us to call out racist actions, but let’s not call out the Madison school district as everyone being racist. While we are busy pointing fingers at each other, we are all failing our children. We fail them when we allow our children to wander hallways … causing chaos in our classrooms. How do we expect them to succeed in the real world when we allow that to happen? We need to deal with that behavior … with compassion, respect and dignity. Those very same children are struggling in our community, with nowhere to turn struggling through poverty and trauma. Some are stealing cars, involved in burglaries and fights in libraries. I was one of those students. I did not get to where I am today because I was allowed to continue that behavior in our schools.”

Reyes also thanked the Freedom Inc and Freedom Youth Squad activists.

“Just because I do not agree on your perspective on officers in schools does not mean I am not hearing you,” she said. “There’s no reason we should have teachers harming our students, bottom line. That is unacceptable. However, we have to equip our teachers with tools and policies necessary to respond to physical altercations, disruptions and threats.”

“Things are really different than what they used to be,” Howard said. “We’re in a lot better place than we used to be here at MMSD. Nine years ago, the conversations we are having here today and the conversations we have regularly now on the board, conversations we have with staff, we weren’t having those conversations. We were not having these conversations. And if you don’t think that’s progress, you haven’t been in the struggle for very long. When I listen to those kids out there speak, I don’t think they know how old I am, I did all that.”

Howard, at his final board meeting, said things could be worse — at least MMSD, he said, has never lost a life to violence.

“I think we are on the right path,” he said. “There’s always going to be hurdles. …The thing that bothers me the most is how kids of color can’t read” he added, referring to the high disparities in reading proficiency according to DPI data.

In a letter to the community issued February 28, Cheatham said the district would convene community meetings to hear from community members over the course of the spring in partnership with a Black-led local nonprofit. The times and places of those meetings have not yet been set.