East HS Walk Out 101521 05-10152021144721 (copy)

Madison East High School students comfort one another while holding signs and listening to classmates recall their experiences with sexual violence at a walkout in October 2021.

A Madison Metropolitan School District committee focused on student safety and wellness wants the district to provide a more coordinated partnership with the Dane County Rape Crisis Center.

The Safety & Student Wellness Ad Hoc Committee has discussed a variety of factors toward its mission of improving student wellbeing in the district. On Thursday, discussion focused on the importance of sexual violence education.

RCC co-executive director Dana Pellebon, a member of the committee, gave a presentation on the organization and its work in schools, which included a significant role following the student walkouts at East High School last year amid a sexual assault allegation against a student.

The organization’s work includes supporting students who have experienced sexual violence, directing them to other resources in the community if needed, training staff and educating students about the meaning of consent. Accessing the support services, especially for students unaware of the RCC, often requires a teacher or student services staff member to help connect a student with the organization.

“The schools that know us, they talk about us,” Pellebon said. “And then there are schools that have had some publicly traumatic experiences that we have been brought in on, so those kids are really, really aware of who we are and what we do.”

Students on the committee shared that they were not aware of many of the resources Pellebon mentioned, including that RCC worked with schools at all.

“I was not aware that RCC was working with high schools,” Memorial High School student Lavenia Vulpal said. “Students in all grades in high school should be aware of this and be having this conversation so they are aware of things, know what’s happening and can get the help they want or need.”

Following a nearly hourlong discussion, committee co-chair Gordon Allen — an East graduate who will attend Stanford this fall — called for a more explicit partnership to be part of the group’s eventual recommendations.

Such a partnership seemed to be in the works last winter, as the RCC supported students at East and other schools. Last December, district officials acknowledged the importance of exploring a memorandum of agreement with the agency to expand its services in the district.

RCC co-executive director Missy Mael said at the time that the agency was at capacity with its staffing model, and would need some funding to expand services.

“We're looking at what would a staffing model look like if we were fully meeting the needs of the students and the staff at the Madison School District,” Mael said. “I'm hopeful that we can come to an agreement that we can give the schools what they need, and that might look like advocates in a couple of the schools, so that they're available exactly when the students need them.”

Then-MMSD Title IX coordinator Kelly Cook, who has since left the district, said at the time that schools could “benefit from their expertise, particularly when developing prevention campaigns and providing training to students and employees.” She said she hoped to have an agreement in place, including “some structured approaches that are in collaboration with some best practices that the Rape Crisis Center shares with us.”

MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds did not respond to a request for an update on that partnership in April, nor did he respond to another email Friday on the subject. Pellebon echoed Mael’s point from December during the meeting Thursday.

“We’re ready to do the work,” she said. “MMSD is the largest school district in the county. It is one thing to have one advocate that can go around to do some specified things, it’s another to have a team that is very specifically focused on the schools and a team of educators that is very specifically focused on the schools.”

She and others in the group stressed the importance of being proactive on issues of sexual violence rather than reactive. That included MMSD Associate Superintendent of Secondary Education Angie Hicks, who said, “education and learning needs to be ongoing and continuous and not a one-and-done,” and it requires purposeful action. She suggested a meeting with Pellebon on the subject of being proactive.

“If we don’t, we’ll be having this conversation 10 years from now,” Hicks said. “It needs to move forward at all levels.”

When asked by Allen if RCC felt it had the access and support it needs from the district to implement a more involved partnership, Pellebon was direct: “No, that’s why we have asked for that, specifically, what it is we feel we need to make that happen.”

She suggested that continuing the current model of “coming in at moments of great crisis and as soon as that crisis is over we aren’t worried about it and it gets put to the backburner” — instead of using those moments as a springboard to continue that work — will not help students.

“That is what I would like to see moving forward is to not engage us in a crisis, alone,” she said. “Yes we are there for crises but also (we need) a comprehensive plan on how to change the culture and how to develop different thoughts and attitudes and ways of doing things and education around those things. Right now, it is spotty.”

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