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Laura Simkin, who was recently elected to the board, said the district should have more “urgency” addressing concerns about the BEP.

Madison School Board members had big-picture questions during a discussion about small changes proposed to the Behavior Education Plan Monday.

District administration brought a set of proposed changes to the controversial, nearly decade-old policy that replaced the student code of conduct. The board discussed the changes at its instruction work group meeting, with a vote planned for the end of the month. The administrators said the district is planning for a larger discussion about the BEP throughout the 2022-23 school year, with changes in 2023.

But board members expressed skepticism about whether they could vote to approve even small changes this month without further information. Board member Laura Simkin, elected in April, suggested the district needs to have more “urgency” addressing concerns about the plan.

“I’m really surprised at the lack of urgency around this,” Simkin said. “The behaviors that are going on in our classrooms are incredibly impactful on our teaching staff and our students’ ability to learn. I would want to see much faster movement on this than looking at waiting another year.”

The changes proposed Monday included codifying the moratorium on elementary out-of-school suspensions, which was added as an addendum to the policy in the fall, but is not part of the document itself yet. Other changes would align the BEP to Title IX guidelines on sexual discrimination, change the level of violation for leaving the school building without permission and for setting or attempting to set a fire.

MMSD executive director of student and staff supports Leia Esser told board members those suggested adjustments and timeline for a more comprehensive discussion “is not about a lack of urgency.”

“It is the reality that our focus had to shift due to COVID,” Esser said. “As we think about coming back next year, we really just need to reground in what we know works and what our schools need in order to make that happen.”

Many in the Madison community have said since its 2014 creation that the BEP has good intentions, including reducing racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates. But it has been a challenge to implement at schools, many have said, leaving staff unsure of how to handle certain situations when they arise. 

Some board members echoed that Monday, and Esser acknowledged the challenges of implementation, though suggested that moving too quickly is part of the problem.

“I actually think one of the things that we have done wrong in the implementation of the BEP is just react and respond and go too quickly without strong consideration of what really will work and what our schools need and how we do that in a coordinated and thoughtful manner,” Esser said.

Simkin suggested one example is in the student use of cell phones in classrooms, something teachers have expressed concerns about this school year. The BEP already prohibits the use of unauthorized, non-educationally required devices that disrupt learning, but Simkin said that teachers “don’t have what they need to implement this and it’s greatly impacting the learning of students.”

“This is something huge that needs to be addressed this summer,” she said. “I don’t think this is something that waits until we work on implementation over the course of next year. We need to talk about the disruption of these devices.”

Much of the other criticism from board members Monday was grounded in a lack of data. Board member Christina Gomez Schmidt said she wanted to see how the moratorium on suspensions at elementary schools this school year affected schools before voting to put it in the plan.

“I was expecting when this came back to us that we would definitely have data about how that has been working this year,” she said. “We don’t have anything that you have given us to show us what these changes in policy have done in practice in the schools.”

Similarly, board member Nichelle Nichols, a former MMSD administrator who was elected in April, said she was “not certain” she could vote for the changes this month without more information “about the how” for implementation.

“I’m concerned that we are talking about policy revision without data,” Nichols said.

Esser suggested some of the changes could wait for a broader discussion, though the Title IX changes are important for aligning to federal requirements and training for staff.

Board president Ali Muldrow wanted to see data on how increasing the punishment level for starting a fire would deter students from doing so, though she agreed the action should be taken seriously.

Simkin and Nichols both mentioned the district’s culture and climate survey data, which is still being finalized. Some of the limited data presented to the board Monday showed that 80% of students responded they felt safe in school.

As Simkin noted, that means one in five students do not feel safe in school, which she finds “really unacceptable.”

“This has got to be connected to our Behavior Education Plan,” she said.

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