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Struggling with Demographic Changes, a Midwest School District Loses Control

Eliminating discipline doesn't eliminate consequences.
October 25, 2019
Struggling with Demographic Changes, a Midwest School District Loses Control
(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In early October, Madison West High School security guard Marlon Anderson found himself face to face with an unruly student. The student had pushed an assistant principal, and when Anderson tried to escort him out of the building, he began calling Anderson a string of profanities. He repeatedly called Anderson the “N-word.”

Anderson, who, like the student, is black, told the student “don’t call me a [“N-word”], using the actual racial slur in his plea. But Anderson’s use of the word was in violation of the school’s policy against such language and he was fired. The student was not disciplined.

Anderson’s firing worked its way into the national news, with thousands of Twitter users pointing out that, in his case, context mattered. Simply referring to the word is different than proactively using it as a weapon. In fact, he said the word out loud only to teach a student to refrain from using it.

On Monday, the district allowed Anderson to return to the job he has dutifully carried out for 11 years.

But the absurdity of firing Anderson in the first place caused unnecessary embarrassment for the supposedly progressive school board. The escalated episode suggests that the board is incapable of implementing judicious policies when dealing with race.

The Anderson imbroglio is only the most recent terrible decision by administrators in a Midwestern district that is spinning out of control. In the past few years, the district has struggled to accommodate a recent influx of minority students, enacting damaging disciplinary policies with consequences that led to the incident at West High School.

For instance, in 2014, the district effectively ended suspensions for all students when administrators noticed that African-American students were being suspended at a higher rate than white students. The district called the plan “a progressive and restorative approach to behavior and discipline,” but the downside was obvious: Students were now free to act out, abuse staff, and disrupt classes at will.

In May of this year, Isthmus, a local weekly newspaper, ran a lengthy piece detailing the travails of teachers who have been attacked and disrespected.

“What’s changed is kids have the mindset that they are in charge now,” said one teacher to the paper. “You walk into the school and there are just kids everywhere. Walking the halls. Leaving the classrooms whenever they want,” she said.

“If a kid says, ‘F— you’ to you six or seven times and there are no repercussions — it becomes pretty clear who is in charge,” said another teacher.

Other educators reported being sexually harassed and verbally abused. Yet under the new plan, suspensions only occur in the last stage of a five-step mediation process and are reserved only for the most violent threats. But the process typically ends well before any consequences are handed out for incidents of misbehavior.

Incidents, for example, like pushing an assistant principal or calling a security guard a racial slur.

Of course, the effect of vastly reducing punishment was entirely predictable. In 2014, St. Paul, Minn., teachers urged the district to reverse their plan to reduce suspensions.

“I believe we are crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students,” said teacher Aaron Benner at the time. “… It’s already hard for these kids — don’t make excuses for them. The police will not have excuses for them when they lock them up,” said Benner, who is black.

In 1991, Madison public high schools were 81 percent white; by 2018, that number had dropped to 44.7 percent. During that time, the number of black high school students nearly doubled, while the number of Hispanic and Latino students has grown from 160 to over 1,500.

And the administrators, which remain mostly white, have behaved as if they have never met a person of color in their lives.

The “zero-tolerance” policy used to fire Marlon Anderson merely assumes that African-Americans would be unable to provide context when hearing that specific slur. The suspension policy runs athwart many big-city discipline plans, where parents are thankful strict rules are enforced.

Perhaps the more pressing issue for Madison schools is the substandard job they do actually educating students of color. According to statewide testing standards, only ten percent of African-American elementary students in 2016-17 ranked as “proficient” in math and only nine percent ranked proficient in reading. That is roughly the same rate as students with special needs (10% and 8%, respectively), and lower than students for whom English is a second language (20% and 16%).

Both the Anderson incident and catastrophic discipline plans are stark reminders of what happens when well-meaning progressivism leaves the realm of the hypothetical and must be enacted with actual students.

On Friday last week, over 1,000 students at Madison West walked out of school to protest the school’s zero-tolerance policy that looked as if it would end Anderson’s career. In a truly modern twist, actress and musician Cher offered on Twitter to pay for Anderson’s legal costs.

One person not present at the protests was former MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, the main proponent of the discipline plan, who left the shambolic school district in August. After six years as head of the district, she was rewarded with a position as a lecturer at Harvard University.

Christian Schneider

Christian Schneider is a member of the USA Today board of contributors and author of 1916: The Blog. Twitter: @Schneider_CM.