Six years after policy began, classrooms are out of control, teachers are afraid and students - black and white - are suffering
By DAVE DALEY | July 14, 2020
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.
One of the policy’s sharpest critics is Peter Anderson, a highly regarded Madison liberal who is leading a campaign to toughen classroom discipline.
“The way that Dr. Cheatham chose to implement the Behavior Education Plan had the effect of undermining teachers, the end result of which — if nothing changes — will be a failed Madison school system, in which it is the at-risk students who will be trapped,” Anderson wrote in an email to the Badger Institute.
“White guilt and black rage are a toxic mix that helps nobody,” he continued, adding that with biracial grandchildren in the Madison schools, he’s “very concerned for what these policies mean both for the disadvantaged kids these efforts are supposedly intended to protect and for the future of public schools in racially diverse metropolitan areas.”
“Continuing Cheathamism cheats the black kids it purports to champion,” Anderson, founder of Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade (now Clean Wisconsin), concluded in a January blog post.
While Cheatham’s intent was laudable, “in its application, she signaled that teachers would be peremptorily fired if an African American student claimed they were a racist when their efforts to break up disturbances ended badly — as inevitably will sometimes happen,” Anderson wrote in an open letter to the Madison School Board. The BEP “has effectively emasculated teachers’ ability to discipline disruptions by black students,” he added.
Kaleem Caire, who operates the One City charter school in Madison that takes in troubled black youths, recounted a story in which a white female teacher at West High School told four black girls 10 minutes after the bell rang to get to class on time.
“(Expletive) you, (expletive) — don’t talk to me,” one of the girls told the teacher. Caire witnessed the incident himself and said the teacher later told him this happens all the time because the kids know they can get away with it.
Mueller-Owens arrives in the classroom
When Mueller-Owens arrived in Pietz’s second-hour classroom that morning, he asked Amy to come with him. “Let’s just leave and go and talk about this,” he reportedly said, but she walked away.
“Come on, let’s go. We can do this, we can keep this together,” he told her, according to his interview with police.
“Leave me the (expletive) alone,” she told Mueller-Owens, according to her own account.
Out of the chair by then, Amy began to move around the classroom and Mueller-Owens told Pietz to take the rest of the class to the library.
“(Expletive) this,” Amy said and walked to the door, he told police.
It was then that things took a turn for the worse.
The Madison district has a policy that allows school staff to use physical restraint if a student’s behavior presents imminent risk to the safety of the student or others and is the least restrictive intervention feasible.
But physical contact can result in a lawsuit, as Mueller-Owens would find out.
Witnesses differ on what happened exactly.
The girl told police that Mueller-Owens pushed her out the door and “punched her in the left arm with a closed fist,” according to the report. She said they both swung on each other with (Mueller-Owens) continuing to punch her all over.
Pietz, the teacher, told police that when Amy refused to leave the room, Mueller-Owens “lightly put his arm around (the girl’s) upper back to guide her out of the room.”
Student teacher Aubrey Peterson told police that Mueller-Owens placed one of his hands and arms on Amy’s upper back in a guiding fashion that was not rough or aggressive.
Tammy Gue, a special education assistant who was also in the room, told police that Mueller-Owens placed an open hand on Amy’s back and nudged her forward, saying, “Go.” At this, the girl threw her shoulders and arms backward and yelled, “Don’t (expletive) touch me, you white, bald-headed (expletive)!” Gue said.
Gue also told police that she saw Mueller-Owens “forcefully push” the girl out the door “using the open palm of one of his hands. The girl then punched him in the face using the closed fist of her left hand, breaking his glasses, Gue said. “Hands just started flailing between them both, with (the girl) still yelling, “Don’t (expletive) touch me,” Gue told police.
While she never saw Mueller-Owens punch the girl’s arm or grab her hair, as Amy alleged, Gue told police she saw his “physical aggression as he was pushing her out of the class” and said that he initiated the physical contact. “There was no justification for Mueller-Owens to push her out of the classroom,” Gue said.
Where Gue seems to fault Mueller-Owens, Peterson seems to exonerate him.
Peterson told police that Amy “suddenly started throwing closed fist punches at (Mueller-Owens’) chest area with both of her hands and arms” and that he “put up both of his hands and arms in front of him” in an attempt to block the punches. Peterson said Mueller-Owens did not punch, slap or kick the girl at any point in the classroom.
As Amy started to leave the classroom herself, he told police she began to slam the door and that he stuck his foot out to stop it and avoid alarming the other students.
“He said Amy then swung the door open and started wailing on him, punching him in the face and head,” according to the police report.
Mueller-Owens and Amy are far from the only ones to have been involved in an altercation in the Madison Metropolitan School District.
One of the worst incidents last year involved a 13-year-old black boy who shot two girls with a pellet gun at Jefferson Middle School. The girls, also minorities, suffered only minor injuries, but an investigation found that the boy had been written up more than two dozen times for disciplinary infractions and had threatened on three previous occasions to “shoot up the school,” threats that school officials did nothing about.
The fallout: The school’s principal resigned, and one of the boy’s teachers was let go. Following the shooting, the teacher had questioned why officials did not act on the previous complaints.
The fired teacher, Mauricio Escobedo, told the Badger Institute that Cheatham’s lenient discipline policy has made Jefferson unsafe for all students, including minorities trying to learn, and for teachers, too. He has been manhandled by students and knows of two students who were bashed in the head, sending one to the hospital, Escobedo said.
“I personally walked students to their next class to protect them,” he said. “Teachers are scared … teachers are very, very fearful.”
The district needs to take politics out of the equation and apply discipline uniformly regardless of race, he said. “How political is it to just keep children safe?” he asked.
Students know the district’s behavior manual better than the teachers do, Escobedo added. “ ‘You can’t touch me,’ they say. If a kid jumps another kid and starts smashing him in the head, you’re supposed to look them in the face and say ‘stop.’ If that doesn’t work, tell them you will call backup. And the kid will say, ‘Go ahead, call backup.’ ”
Teachers dealing with unruly students do not find much support from administrators, he said. “The teacher gets blamed. You get called in. They’ll ask you, ‘Are you losing control of your room?’ ” After a student wrote graffiti in his classroom, the school administrator asked him, “What did you do to trigger her?”
Altercation moves to the hallway
Mueller-Owens was trained in the technique of deescalating confrontations — but for whatever reason that day the strategies failed.
He told police that when Amy started hitting him, he put his arms up to protect his face and then started pushing her out of the classroom as Gue tried to intervene.
“Get the (expletive) out of the way,” Amy yelled, according to a police interview with another teacher, Carol Rybak, who witnessed the portion of the altercation in the hallway and said the girl was trying to get back into the classroom.
Amy said Mueller-Owens “flipped her over and slammed her onto the floor” in the hallway.
He told police he put Amy in a bear hug to blunt the punches but lost his balance and tumbled along with her and Gue to the floor.
Gue told police she tried to get in between them but “before she could do that” Mueller-Owens “grabs both of them, pivots and throws them onto the ground.”
Rybak saw it differently.
As the girl punched Mueller-Owens in the face with both fists, he used textbook techniques from nonviolent crisis intervention training on how to protect himself and deescalate a situation, Rybak told police. She said Mueller-Owens was not pushing or striking the girl.
The police review of security video concluded: “It looked like they all tripped and fell on top of each other.”
In an interview last year with The Capital Times, Mueller-Owens disputed any characterization that he lost his cool in the incident. “The whole time I was clear and present in my head,” he said. “I was very mindful of what was happening.” And he insisted, “I would never harm a child. And I would expect that the people who know me know that.”
He also told police that the only time he touched her was to move her forward to prevent her from attacking him further.
BEP results underwhelming
The Madison School District did not immediately respond to a query regarding the status of the BEP but as of last May the school board rejected a change to the BEP and left it intact. If bringing down the rate of black student suspensions is one way to measure its success, the plan is a decided failure.
Last fall, black students — 18% of the student body in Madison schools — accounted for 57% of the out-of-school suspensions, almost three times the rate for white students. That suspension rate is the same as when Cheatham took the helm in 2013 vowing to bring the numbers down.
There is some good news: The fall 2019 suspension of black students was down 5% from the same period two years earlier. However, data for the full school year won’t be available because schools closed in March due to COVID-19.
In May 2019, as the controversy over her discipline policy was reaching a fever pitch, Cheatham left for a teaching job at Harvard University. Behind her, critics say, she left a district in shambles.
Unapologetic, she saw it differently.
“The conversations that I wanted us to have years ago about racial equity,” Cheatham told The Capital Times as she was leaving town, “are now happening all over … and they are creating a healthy disequilibrium that is disrupting the dominant culture.” Cheatham did not respond to a request for comment.
Mueller-Owens, through his attorney, also declined a request for an interview for this story. However, in the last interview he gave, he told The Capital Times in March 2019 that he was bitter that Cheatham did not wait for police to finish its investigation before calling the incident “especially horrific.”
All the district’s central office told him was that he should not have allowed the situation to get out of control and should have handled it differently, he said; but when he asked how exactly, district officials gave him no answer.
Impact on other teachers and students
The lack of support from the front office in such instances has not gone unnoticed by either teachers or, it seems, students.
Five teachers and a counselor have resigned from Jefferson in the past several months, Escobedo said.
“You should not be afraid to go to school. I as a teacher was afraid to go to school,” he said.
La Follette High School history teacher Pete Opps told the Badger Institute that teachers do not bother trying to correct disruptive behavior but “just roll with the punches,” letting students do what they want in class and focusing on those who are trying to learn. “Disruptions have no real consequences.”
Teachers who grow weary of the chaos retire if they can, move on to other districts or change careers, he added.
“You don’t know how an interaction with a kid is going to go or that the district will support you after the fact. What ends up happening is teachers do nothing,” retired Hamilton Middle School teacher Jim Lister told Isthmus last year.
The press, the police and the lawsuit
Mueller-Owens, the believer in social and restorative justice who is accused of violating a young black girl’s civil rights, has not fared well.
The girl had a couple of braids that fell or were pulled out that day, and national and international news reports about the incident screamed headlines that a white male educator ripped braids from the scalp of an 11-year-old black girl.
After a three-week police investigation, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined to file charges against Mueller-Owens, saying that false narratives had circulated over the incident.
But his legal problems are far from over.
The girl’s mother, Mikiea Price, called police to report an assault and later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Mueller-Owens, the school district and the district’s insurance company.
Price’s lawsuit alleges that Amy was “injured without justification by an administrator and employee” of the district and that the use of force was a violation of the girl’s constitutional rights and a violation of district policies on “restraint, seclusion and contact with students.”
The suit seeks compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at trial, money for the attorneys and other “further relief as the court finds just and equitable.” Her lawyer declined to comment but confirmed that the suit is still pending.
Mueller-Owens is no longer with the district.
He quietly resigned in March 2019.
Dave Daley, a journalist for over 30 years, covered the Capitol for The Milwaukee Journal and legal affairs for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
Related story: Stop blaming teachers for bias; hold minority students who misbehave accountable