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Friday, July 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Overcast
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EDUCATION

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham advises Madison school board to use discretion for students facing expulsion

Maia, a freshman at East High School, is facing expulsion for an alcohol-related offense.
Credit:Carolyn Fath
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Three days after Isthmus first reported that an honors student named Maia is facing expulsion from East High for a onetime alcohol violation, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham is now telling the Madison school board it should "adjust [its] process for expulsions."

On Friday, Cheatham sent a memo to board members recommending that they not enforce the current code of conduct for students with respect to expulsions for the remainder of this year. The board meets Monday, March 31 to review the fourth draft of a new code of conduct for the school district and to vote on Cheatham's recommendation to expel Maia through the 2013-14 school year. Board members, who will be considering two expulsion cases, will vote in closed session.

The district is considering shifting from a "zero-tolerance" approach, which relies on suspensions and expulsions, to one that acknowledges that children learn by "pushing and testing limits" and "getting feedback about their behavioral choices."

Cheatham had told Isthmus she thought the school board would keep the proposed new guidelines in mind while determining whether to follow her recommendation to expel Maia. But her memo Friday, which does not name any student, takes it a step further.

"As the board prepares to make a value statement about how we define our behavior system in this district, I do not believe that we should continue to enforce our current code of conduct as it relates to expulsions, for the remainder of the school year -- specifically behaviors that, under our new plan, would not result in an automatic recommendation for expulsion," she wrote.

Cheatham did not, however, change or back away from her recommendations to the board, noting "it is past the point of being able to" do so. In addition, notes Maia's attorney, Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, the board's closed-session vote on Cheatham's expulsion recommendations is scheduled to occur before it takes up the new conduct proposals. "For all those reasons, this is not over," he says.

But, he adds, Cheatham's memo might free board members to use their own discretion. "I did have a concern it was possible some board members might feel beholden to the superintendent's recommendation because she is the superintendent and because she is new. So I do think her memo removes the obstacle to the board doing the right thing. I don't think they have to worry about angering her or undercutting her authority anymore."

The current Student Conduct and Discipline Plan is organized around four levels of behavior. Maia violated 402a of the code when she brought two water bottles with a few ounces of liquor each to school on Feb. 20 and gave one bottle to a friend. Both students registered zero when administered a breathalyzer test by a Madison police officer. Maia was immediately suspended and, since being recommended for expulsion, has been out of school for most of the last five weeks.

Under the proposed new conduct rules for elementary and middle/high school behavior, Maia's fourth-level offense would be "a four- to five-day suspension," Spitzer-Resnick says.

Isthmus' story was widely shared through social networks, and was followed by other media coverage. Supporters even started a new Twitter hashtag, #letmaiagotoschool.

Melissa Meyer, Maia's mother, says her family has been "overwhelmed by the support" it has received from friends, family and the community. And, through social media channels, from people they don't even know.

"We have extreme gratitude," she says. "That really means a lot."

Meyer says her family wanted to share their experience publicly in order to help others in the same predicament.

"We're fighting this not just for our daughter, but for all those who don't have a voice," she says. "I had no idea how focused on punishment the district's policies are."

Meyer says Maia and all kids who make mistakes should face consequences. "I'm not saying my daughter should have special treatment. I'm saying every kid should have fair treatment. And the consequences should focus on what's best for kids, school and community and not just focused on punishment."

Meyer says she is not sure what the superintendent's memo to the board means for her daughter, but she is hopeful.

"I want her back in school on Tuesday," she says. "Through all this, that's all we've wanted. We are huge believers in public education. We are huge believers in neighborhood schools. Let's show some mercy on these kids and get them back in school."

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