Sennett Middle School 100422 01-10042022105714 (copy)

Sennett Middle School is located at 502 Pflaum Road.

Next week, the Madison School Board will consider the reinstatement of Jeffrey Copeland as principal of Sennett Middle School.

On Monday night, the board heard once again from school staff about the positive change Copeland brought to the school in his short time before being fired in September for comments left on an accidental voicemail. The testimonials were similar to those given at the September board meeting that came just days after his firing was announced, two weeks after he’d been put on administrative leave. Copeland led the school for only nine days of the 2022-23 school year.

Carmen Ames, who spoke at the September meeting and again Monday, focused on the hope that Copeland brought for staff and students, suggesting “we need that hope back.”

“It’s hard to teach kids that don’t have hope,” said Ames, who has taught at Sennett for 30 years. “Our kids had hope with Dr. Copeland. I saw it in the way they behaved in class, I saw it in their discussions they had in classrooms, I heard it in the hallways.

“That hope is missing right now.”

She and five other staff members spoke to the board during public comment, while eight others submitted written comments.

Earlier this month, records obtained through an open records request revealed the district had fired Copeland for comments accidentally left on a job candidate’s voicemail.

According to an audio recording and transcript, Copeland told an unidentified colleague that the job applicant “could barely communicate with me,” seemingly in reference to the applicant’s English skills. Copeland also said, “they’re just giving people damn jobs.” The candidate had a degree from the Dominican Republic, according to the recording provided.

A termination letter signed by Madison Metropolitan School District chief of secondary schools Angie Hicks addressing Copeland, who was hired this summer, referred to Copeland's “comments about the person not being from this country as well as your disapproval of his credentials.”

“Your actions were unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” Hicks wrote. “Your behavior goes against the MMSD vision of creating an anti-racist school culture and curriculum. Therefore, your employment with MMSD is hereby terminated effective immediately.”

Hicks also called his comments “extremely harmful” and wrote that they “do not reflect the values that the district believes its leaders should possess.”

Copeland has filed a grievance over his firing. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that his initial grievance was denied by administration, but his appeal to the School Board will take place Nov. 29.

Monday, some of the speakers questioned the district’s assessment of Copeland’s comments. Rigoberto Gallegos, who has taught in Sennett’s dual language immersion program since 2016 after 10 years at Nuestro Mundo, said Copeland “put the needs of the students first” at the school.

“I listened to the recordings, and all I heard from what Dr. Copeland said was he was not happy with how this would work for our students,” Gallegos said. “His concern was about communication, not about race, ethnicity or national origin.”

Marlene Patino Quinto, who teaches science in the dual language immersion program at Sennett, offered her comments in Spanish Monday through an interpreter. She reiterated that Copeland had done “a great job” at Sennett and been “a great example of what Black Excellence means in our school.”

“Now that we understand the motive for Dr. Copeland’s removal, I want to say as a Latina person that speaks English as a second language, that when we utilize technology to communicate, many times we can misinterpret the circumstances, the expression and how it’s emoted,” she said.

Patino Quinto further suggested that Copeland deserved a chance to defend himself.

“We understand that it’s natural for people to not always be their best 100% of the time,” she said. “With that, it is important to allow people to defend themselves and have the right to due process and explain themselves.”

Sennett teacher Mika Oriedo said Copeland came “at a time when we needed change and we needed something bad.” While the two retired administrators who have been brought in to serve as co-interim principals since Copeland’s firing are fine people, Orideo said, two part-time leaders cannot do the job that’s needed.

Soon, the decision will be with the School Board.

“You have it within your power to make this right,” Oriedo said.

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