Analysis: Madison school district’s lenient discipline policy is a dismal failure

Dave Daley:

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.

2005: Gangs & School Violence forum audio / video.

2017: West High Reading Interventionist Teacher’s Remarks to the School Board on Madison’s Disastrous Reading Results

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results

“An emphasis on adult employment”

Wisconsin Public Policy Forum Madison School District Report[PDF]

Booked, but can’t read (Madison): functional literacy, National citizenship and the new face of Dred Scott in the age of mass incarceration