Analysis: Madison Schools’ failed discipline policy

Empower Wisconsin | July 22, 2020

By Dave Daley, The Badger Institute

As he got ready for his job as the student behavior expert at Madison’s Whitehorse Middle School in February 2019, Rob Mueller-Owens couldn’t have predicted that by 9 a.m. he’d be sprawled on the floor, entangled with an 11-year-old student following a violent confrontation.

Mueller-Owens was a 30-year veteran educator and leading voice on new approaches to school discipline who was known to many of his students as just “Mr. Rob.”

As director of culture and climate in the Madison Metropolitan School District, he helped promote a new district discipline policy pushed by then-Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham.

The approach aimed to reduce the alarming rate at which black students were suspended compared with white students — a 3-1 ratio. Instead of punishing misbehavior in traditional ways, teachers and administrators like Mueller-Owens were supposed to attempt to keep disruptive students in the classroom, where they’d at least theoretically have a chance to learn.

In reality, the new approach worked a little differently that Wednesday morning.

What led to the confrontation

Eighty pages of the Madison Police Department report paint an ugly picture of an explosive confrontation between Mueller-Owens and the sixth-grade girl. The report also offers a front-row seat to what is happening in Madison schools at a time when teachers and parents say too many classrooms are out of control.

The following statements, unless otherwise noted, are taken from police reports.

The girl, Amy — not her real name, which is redacted in the police report —dropped F-bombs as she walked into her first-hour homeroom class that day, according to Mueller-Owens’ statement to police. A call was made to Mueller-Owens, and he and Amy talked in his office in the Alternate Learning Center (ALC). The conversation seemed to end positively from his perspective, but not long after that the situation worsened.

Amy had teacher Barbara Pietz for second-hour science but arrived halfway through the class and, according to Pietz, sat near friends rather than in her assigned seat, started chatting and listened to music on her headphones.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit later filed by the girl’s mother, it is alleged that Pietz asked the girl to leave the classroom because Pietz has a scent allergy and the girl smelled too strongly of perfume.

Witnesses in the police report, though, told a different story.

The teacher said she repeatedly asked Amy to move, according to witness accounts in the report, and eventually walked over, stood next to her and told her she was going to stay there until the girl went to her assigned seat.

Amy responded, “I’m going to spray air freshener in your face. You need to leave me alone,” according to Pietz.

A classmate, in an interview with police, said that Amy also told Pietz at one point, “I’ll sit down when you take a shower.”

Mueller-Owens was summoned again.

Discipline policy changed in 2014

In 2013, the Madison school district had a zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior. Suspension was almost automatic for most violations. When Cheatham became superintendent that year, she was determined to bring down suspension and expulsion rates that she felt unfairly affected black students.

Black students made up 62% of expulsions for the previous four years compared to only 19% for white kids in a district where black students were just under 20% of the population. “Racial equity” became Cheatham’s mantra.

She was convinced the district’s zero-tolerance approach was partly to blame — it did not give a troubled student the opportunity to learn from misbehavior or for the school to learn what was behind the bad conduct and find ways to help.

So in 2014, Cheatham, who is white, implemented her Behavior Education Plan (BEP) geared to helping students learn positive behavior to keep them in the classroom. The district would use options such as an in-class suspension or mediation with a “restorative justice” circle to try to talk through the bad conduct with the student and the students’ peers and teachers.

The BEP also would be “culturally responsive” — that is, take into consideration the fact that poor, black kids in challenging circumstances can behave differently than their white peers.

Mueller-Owens believed in and fervently promoted Cheatham’s discipline agenda.

“The dominant culture lacks an understanding of how other cultures interact with each other,” he told a Madison Commons writer in 2018, explaining why black students were suspended at higher rates than white kids. “The BEP comes from a heart of justice.”

Others disagreed. Some teachers and observers felt the BEP made it difficult to keep order in the classroom, gave the upper hand to students disinterested in learning and even put teachers in danger.

Worse, some argued, the classroom disruptions were hurting black students the most — a group already struggling to close the achievement gap with white students.

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