Panel discussion addresses issues of race, student-teacher relationships in MMSD

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- A panel discussion Tuesday night at First Unitarian Church sparked discussions on the issues of race, special education, and student-teacher relationships in MMSD schools.

The panel comes two months after an alleged altercation between a white then-teacher at Whitehorse Middle School and an African American student.

The panel was hosted by Urban Triage, First Unitarian Society, the Community Response Team, and members of the Building Capacity to Protect Black Children Group. Panelists included MMSD educators, an attorney, a doctor, and the co-executive director of Freedom Inc., in addition to moderators.

The objective of the panel was stated as centering the voices of those who are disenfranchised and vulnerable, such as African American students and students with disabilities.

Throughout the event, panelists and community members engaged in conversations and questions about the role race plays in education, and discussed potential solutions to issues they cited in the school district.

Michael Jones, a special education teacher for Black Hawk Middle School, said that the first priority for teachers should be their students' safety. However, he also said there is some confusion over when and in what capacity educators can step in.

"If two students are fighting, do I have to wait until they're physically hurting each other until I get involved? Can I get in between?" said Jones. "There's a lot of questions, and every teacher or adults are different. Even if you get guidance on that, certain people are more comfortable with that than others. What sort of supports do you get? How do you process after that? How do you build the relationship - how do you work with the child after something like that happens?"

Jones also said that in education, there can be gray areas.

"There’s a lot of times where teachers would like more clearance or more guidance on this is how you’re supposed to act or interact," he said. "But we also know that sometimes those rules, those mandates, directly go against the mere nature of what we do.”

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a civil rights attorney with Systems Change Consulting, said work needs to be done.

"I truly believe that the district needs to do a better job of training and supporting its staff," said Spitzer-Resnick. "We see staff who are under stress and don't necessarily have the training or the supports that they need."

Spitzer-Resnick also said the district needs to show that it wants to listen to families' concerns and figure out how to address those concerns.

"I also think the district needs to do a better job in dealing with what I would call a community crisis like this, and engaging in the community. I don’t see that community engagement," he said.

One moderator for the panel said eventually they would like to take these ideas to the school board. The panelists encouraged community members to be involved in the process and continue these discussions if they wish to see change.

The panel concluded with community members and panelists splitting into two break out groups to brainstorm and write down possible solutions to the issues they discussed, including increasing diversity in school staff and showing students love and respect.