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Madison Schools’ Racial Slurs Policy Challenged Again With New Recommendations

Independent Arbitrator: Social Worker Disciplined For Racial Slur Should Get Her Record Cleared

Three people sit at a table with a sign that says WELCOME over their heads. Sandra Rivera sits flanked by her union president and her lawyer.
Sandra Rivera, center, talks to the press and community members about her punishment under the Madison Metropolitan School District’s zero-tolerance policy for racial slurs at a press conference on Oct. 25, 2019. Miranda Suarez/WPR

The Madison Metropolitan School District’s zero-tolerance policy for racial slurs is unclear and counterproductive in the case of one staff member punished under the policy, according to an independent arbitrator.

In March, Sandra Rivera, a social worker at Nuestro Mundo Community School, was in a staff meeting about racial inequity at school. She quoted a student who used the slur, repeating the N-word in its entirety.

The district gave Rivera a disciplinary suspension, the harshest punishment short of firing, which she appealed. Now, Dennis McGilligan, the independent arbitrator brought on to hear the appeal, recommends the district clear Rivera’s record.

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“Contrary to District assertions, there is no evidence or persuasive argument her use of the word normalized the word. There is also no evidence or persuasive argument her use of the N word harmed anyone,” McGilligan wrote in his report.

Rivera’s principal opposed disciplinary action, as did more than 30 of her coworkers who signed a letter in her support to the district.

“Sandra has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to social justice,” the staff members wrote. “She has repeatedly initiated difficult conversations about race, including challenging teachers on their practices and addressing system-wide issues.”

Tamara Packard is an attorney who represented Rivera. She argued context needs to be taken into account when reviewing the use of racial slurs, especially because the zero-tolerance policy is not formalized anywhere.

“It was only articulated in a couple of emails from the superintendent that really didn’t say this is a zero-tolerance situation,” Packard said.

The district argued the messages were unambiguous. However, McGilligan found many staff members remained confused about the policy, thinking it only applied to racial slurs used against people, not those said in other contexts.

Another staff email to the Nuestro Mundo principal and district human resources warned Rivera’s punishment would have a chilling effect.

“Disciplinary action will impact staff willingness to engage in conversations around race. We are trying to create a culture where conversations can happen more often, where people can share openly, where we take risks with one another to talk about difficult, sensitive topics,” the staff member wrote.

Overall, in Rivera’s case, the zero-tolerance policy “is counter to its purpose,” McGilligan wrote.

“The severe discipline dealt to the Grievant has dramatically undermined MMSD’s anti-racism efforts at Nuestro Mundo,” he continued.

Doug Keillor, executive director of the union Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), said he expects the school district to honor the recommendation.

“We feel hopeful that this, along with the Marlon Anderson case earlier this school year, has really kind of convinced the district to move away from their zero-tolerance approach,” he said.

Marlon Anderson is a security guard at Madison West High School who was fired in October for repeating the N-word while asking a student not to call him that.

After protests and widespread media attention, Anderson, who is black, got his job back, and the district announced it would review the zero-tolerance policy.

School district spokesperson Tim LeMonds wrote in an email the district can’t comment on personnel matters.

MTI is currently working with two other staff members to appeal their punishments under the zero-tolerance policy, Keillor said.