‘We don’t feel safe’: Fights at East High lead to students pepper sprayed, citations, and ambulances

MADISON, Wis. — Madison police said officers used pepper spray to break up several fights involving dozens of students outside of East High School on Monday.

Two students were cited and eight had to be treated after the pepper spray, with five of those treated taken to the hospital.

Multiple fights break out during lunch hour

During an afternoon press conference, police officials and representatives with the Madison Metropolitan School District said the incident started around 11:30 a.m. when the school’s open lunch period started.

School officials said a fight broke out in the Welcome Center, during which someone pulled a fire alarm and students went outside where additional fights broke out.

Madison Metropolitan School District spokesperson Tim LeMonds said a “large majority of our students” followed instructions and returned to the building after the alarm sounded, with a smaller number remaining outside and additional fights continued.

The fights broke out among a small group of students who didn’t return to the building, LeMonds said. The fights then escalated when staff tried to intervene and a Madison police officer was assaulted, prompting officers to use pepper spray.

Police response

MPD Chief Shon Barnes said officers used pepper spray twice during the incident: once on a fight involving roughly five students and once more on a group of students engaged in several smaller fights.

“We were here simply to support the staff and I think our officers did a good job given the information that they had,” Barnes said.

Eight students needed medical treatment for exposure to the chemicals; three were treated at the school and five were taken to a hospital. All are expected to be okay. No students were injured in the fights. LeMonds said no staff members were injured during the incident.

“We saw students on the floor, we saw one student throwing up. We also saw that the basketball coach was pepper-sprayed along with other students,” Mary Acosta, a 10th grader at the high school, said. She and two of her friends saw the fights happen and described how some students had to use gallons of milk after being sprayed.

“I personally saw students crying because they were pepper-sprayed, also some of my friends were pepper-sprayed and they were affected by it. They felt like they couldn’t see properly, they felt sick because they were pepper-sprayed.”

In total, more than 15 officers responded. Barnes said an officer was hit in the face by a student during the incident; that student was cited for assault on an officer. Another student was cited for having an “edged weapon,” but police said they weren’t sure if it was scissors, a knife or some other object.

Barnes said Monday’s fights stemmed from a previous incident in the Rethke Neighborhood.

School response

District Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins said the school is working on a safety plan for tomorrow’s classes, and he’s proud of how staff and students responded. The pandemic has exacerbated students’ trauma and socio-economic needs, he noted.

“In no kind of way do we think this is acceptable,” Jenkins said. “We know that there are unmet needs of our students and our staff and our school and in our community and we’re here to address them together.”

Monday’s incident was the latest in a recent string of high-profile events on school grounds, including a fight broke out in a large crowd and student walk-outs over allegations that a student sexually assaulted a young woman in early October.

District officials said they’re working on a safety plan for the school as a result.

Another student who didn’t wish to be named told News 3 Now that they feared that incidents like these were building a reputation that the vast majority of the students didn’t deserve.

The violence at the school has been bad since the beginning of the school year, Acosta said.

“There have been a lot of fights. Every day there’s always a conflict. We don’t feel safe,” she said. “Every time something bad happens, it’s just something big, the police have to come out of their way to stop the violence. It’s just not a safe environment in the school.”

LeMonds told News 3 Now that he estimated that 90% of behavioral incidents right now were happening during the open lunch period when students can leave the campus to eat.

Monday’s fights also raised questions for at least one parent at the press conference about the practicality of not having officers stationed in the district’s high schools. Last summer, the school board voted to terminate their contract with Madison Police supplying school resource officers in MMSD high schools.

“It’s a more complex thing than just having resource officers in schools. When we first started schools, we didn’t have resource officers in schools. We didn’t even have police,” Dr. Jenkins said. “And I ask everyone to go back and think about where we are right now and how can we make a better society?”