MMSD superintendent wants to sit down with East High teachers to address campus rape culture
MADISON, Wis. — Following a letter signed by 73 East High staff members asking the district to take more “decisive action” to address harm to their community, Superintendent Jen Cheatham said she understands their criticisms and wants to work with them to create safer schools.
After an alleged sexual assault on campus April 10, then a comment by the district’s safety and security coordinator Joe Balles that seemed to minimize it, teachers said students started to feel like the district didn’t care.
“We were hoping by Tuesday night that Dr. Cheatham would’ve issued a response, at least acknowledging what Joe Balles said was inappropriate. Even with the redaction, it still never should’ve been said and so that made trauma that East was experiencing much worse,” said Sarah Elmore, a counselor at East High School.
History teacher Amanda Pustz said while the principal and staff at East High were “trying to really be proactive and trying to tackle it head on,” the lack of response from the district “seemed to be just a stark contrast.”
Elmore and Putsz authored the letter signed by dozens of staff members, asking for disciplinary measures for Balles as well as a new safety and security plan from the district to address the culture and climate that allowed the sexual assault to happen in the first place.
“I understand the criticism completely. I understand their criticism of me, right, for not speaking up as quickly and forcefully as they would’ve liked me to,” said Cheatham. “Right now, we have to work triple hard to rebuild trust and show people what we actually think, which is that there is no place for sexual violence in schools and that it is all of our responsibility to make sure that we’re not reproducing the culture that makes that possible.”
Cheatham said she is talking to Balles to “make sure that follow-up actions are appropriate.”
“I know that those comments caused additional harm, when harm had already been caused. And it is in those times where it’s incredibly important for families, for students, for staff to hear from us that sexual violence will not be tolerated in school, it can not be minimized. And I don’t think we can turn back the clock and fix the damage that was done,” said Cheatham.
She said the district has been doing proactive work to prevent sexual violence, and she believes it can do more. She hopes to meet with the East High staff to discuss what can be done.
The teachers have also requested that all district staff go through mandatory sexual assault training as well as professional development. Cheatham said they haven’t done that before, but she’d be open to it.
“We’re hoping that this is just the beginning and that we’re going to carry on with a lot more training and actually being on the forefront instead of just being reactive,” said Elmore.
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