Madison schools superintendent pens open letter following Whitehorse incident, calls for action

Negassi Tesfamichael:

In an open letter to the community released Thursday morning, Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham acknowledged that the district “cannot be silent” on issues of racial justice.

The letter comes eight days after media reports surfaced regarding an alleged assault at Whitehorse Middle School. In that incident, which is still being investigated by the Madison Police Department, a white staff member allegedly pushed an 11-year-old girl and pulled her braids out. Rob Mueller-Owens, the staff member facing accusations in the Whitehorse incident, is a positive behavior support coach. He is currently on administrative leave and will not return to Whitehorse, according to MMSD.

Cheatham said in her letter that the incident at Whitehorse was “especially horrific” and said there was failure on part of the district regardless of what comes out of the police investigation.

The letter:

February 28, 2019

Dear Madison Community,

I have talked with enough people in Madison to know that racism is a problem in our community and has been for a long time. We are not immune to it. It is at times intentional and unintentional. It is everywhere, every day. It is within us and surrounds us. Any school district is a microcosm of the society we live in.

The polarization in our country today puts a tremendous amount of pressure on young people and the people who work in schools to somehow get it right, while the rest of society gets it wrong.

But as a school district that exists to protect children and cultivate the beauty and full worth of every single child, we must be held to the highest possible standard.

The series of racial slur incidents that have occurred this school year and caused harm to Black students, their families, and our community are indefensible. They run counter to our core values and our commitment to serving youth and families.

The most recent incident at Whitehorse Middle School was especially horrific. No matter what comes out of the police investigation, there was a failure on our part. We will review every fact to understand what happened so that we can take aggressive action.

If we are serious about our vision — that every school is a thriving school — we have to disrupt racism in all of its forms. We cannot be silent. We cannot perpetuate it. We must examine everything. In no way can we, as a community of educators, accommodate or make excuses for actions that hurt the very students we have dedicated our lives to help.

As the superintendent of this school district, as a leader for racial justice, as a mother, I know I’ve been charged with making changes that will disrupt this pattern, and even more, uplift the students we serve. I embrace that charge and will continue to do so.

For those who are demanding meaningful change, I want you to know that there are many inside this institution who are already actively engaged in making it, including our staff of color and white coconspirators. It is through their unwavering commitment and continual push for change that we have a clearer path forward, more momentum, and cause to move faster. There are a number of critical actions currently underway. Those include:

A new system for staff, students, and families to report incidents of racism or discrimination that will launch this spring

A full review of investigation and critical response protocols to ensure they are culturally responsive, grounded in restoration, and more transparent Revision and consistent application of the MMSD equity tool to ensure current and future HR policy and practice, as well as Board policy recommendations, are developed through a racial equity lens

A refresh of the School Improvement Planning process to ensure that race, rigor and relationships are central to school based decision making

A new required professional development series for all staff on racial identity, implicit bias, and racial inequity in the United States, along with a refined support and accountability system to monitor progress

We are also committed to working alongside our community and will hold several facilitated community meetings in the next two months dedicated to building trust and ensuring our collective actions support the students and families we serve.

Last fall, we reaffirmed, more strongly than ever before, our belief in the inherent brilliance, creativity and excellence of Black youth, families, and staff. We know that requires an equal commitment to confront the practices, policies, and people that stand in the way of Black Excellence shining through.

I promise this community that we are going to work hard to get it right. I know we will continue to be challenged. More issues will likely surface. And we will be relentless in our efforts. This is the work we signed up for. Most important, we will listen and learn in a way that models the best instincts of this community that we love.

In partnership,


Jennifer Cheatham

Related: Graduation rates and non reading in the Madison School District:

The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at East, especially if you are black or Hispanic. But when 70 percent of your minority students earn diplomas and fewer than 20 percent of them are able to read at grade level, what does that high school diploma mean?

East ninth-graders who don’t know how to read might not want to go to school (because they don’t know how to read!) and thus might be chronically absent. They might not want to go to class (because they don’t know how to read!) and thus might engage in disruptive activities elsewhere. And they might not be able to keep up (because they don’t know how to read!) and thus might fail.

Rather than focus so heavily on attendance, behavior, and socioemotional learning, as described in the article, teachers and administrators should prioritize teaching students how to read. Students who know how to read are more likely to come to school, go to class, work hard, and have a meaningful and rewarding post-high school life.

David Blaska:

But nothing about holding parents and students responsible for their actions. Nothing about requiring children to obey their teacher. Nothing about parents’ responsibility to read to their children and instruct them to be good citizens. Nothing about maintaining civility at school board meetings.

What is more, Cheatham appears to have thrown that vice principal at Whitehorse middle school under the bus. Perhaps the superintendent is in a position to know the whole story. Perhaps she is yielding to the strongest voices.

“No matter what comes out of the police investigation, there was a failure on our part.”

In would be interesting to know exactly what was that failure?