SPASD offers updates on response after racially-insensitive slavery assignment, says investigation is ongoing

Board, district apologizes to YWCA CEO for ‘misstep’

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. – Leaders and board members of the Sun Prairie Area School District are asking the community for their forgiveness and trust following a racially-insensitive assignment.

At the start of February, students and families questioned an assignment on ancient Mesopotamia at Patrick Marsh Middle School that asked sixth graders how they, as masters, would punish a slave for disobeying. That left many asking how the district would respond.

On that same day, the district announced the teachers involved were put on administrative leave. The assignment, taken from a national site, has since been taken down.

At a school board meeting Monday, district leaders gave a presentation on the timeline of the incident, the response and the investigation.

“I’d like to start this presentation with a statement of apology, of ownership and of commitment,” Superintendent Brad Saron said. “While this incident at Patrick Marsh Middle School does not reflect our commitment and work leading up to this point, it does serve as a determining factor to accelerate our work toward racial equity.”

The district’s director of human resources, Christopher Sadler, said the investigation into the incident is ongoing, led by a third party, who “is being diligent and thorough to ensure the process leads to a legal and comprehensive decision.”

An attorney is now representing two families in the district in response to the assignment.

Work on equity

District leaders said work since the incident includes restorative circles for students and staff at PMMS, scheduling more meetings with the African American Parent Network and getting their input on hiring the right person for a new fulltime equity position, and revising how curriculums are reviewed, starting with social studies.

“Please accept our assurance of ongoing commitment toward racial equity with support from the highest levels of leadership,” Saron said.

The district said it was talking with community partners on future equity work, but planned to keep their names under wraps until the deals are signed and official.

YWCA apology

During the meeting, Board President Steve Schroeder and the director of secondary teaching, learning & equity, Sarah Chaja-Clardy, apologized to YWCA Madison CEO Vanessa McDowell for the false claim the district was collaborating with the organization on equity work.

Schroeder read an email he sent to McDowell on behalf of the district apologizing “for any and all disputes and disagreements that have occurred over the last week between the district and YWCA. I recognize that these disputes have become a distraction from the district’s important equity work. I take full responsibility for the misunderstanding regarding the use of the YWCA name during the school board meeting on Feb. 8.”

Previously, a spokesperson for the district put out a release suggesting all parties involved may have been partially correct.

“We have had missteps and we have had trespasses, including the YWCA and also Vanessa McDowell, and for that I wish to, on behalf of Sun Prairie Area School District, apologize for these trespasses, while restating our intention,” Saron said. “Our intention is to reach out to help.”

“I do appreciate hearing the apology to the YWCA,” Board Member Marilyn Ruffin said. “I really wanted to see that done much sooner than today.”

She also said she appreciated a page on the district’s website laying out updates, apologies and responses from board and district leaders, but questioned why that information wasn’t being displayed more prominently on social media such as Facebook. Saron said he would look into the possibility.

Demands from staff

As part of public comment, more than 20 district teachers and staff members signed a note with a list of demands for the district going forward, including a public apology in the media to McDowell, an external audit of equity work and accountability guidelines on equity work.

“The district’s narrative that all staff are trained in equity and are culturally proficient is not entirely true,” the letter said, adding that at a district level, “equity work is sporadic, unfocused, voluntary, and given as a standalone piece of learning with no time for meaningful implementation.”

The teachers wrote that they want racial learning to be intentional.

“We are teaching our students about race and racism whether we are implicit or explicit,” the note said. “We want to own our responsibility as teachers.”