Ending Racism Requires Systems Change

Recently, Rev. Alex Gee, wrote an incredible personal story about his Justified Anger about racism in Madison.  The story’s publication on the front page of the Capital Times has sparked many fruitful conversations about how to end enduring racism in a city where most would expect that such problems would be minimal.  After I read his compelling story (and I strongly recommend that you read it as well), I reached out to Rev. Gee to meet him and discuss how we might work together to transform the important conversation his article has started into enduring systemic change.


We met for coffee the day before Christmas, which I am sure must be a very busy time for any Pastor preparing for his church’s most important holiday.  But his commitment to ending racism in his life long town inspired him to take an hour out of his day to meet me and start what we both hope will be a fruitful relationship.

Of course, neither of us is naive enough to think that ending racism in Madison is an easily accomplished task.  After all, given its liberal, progressive history, if it were easy to end racism in Madison, it would have been done long ago.

Sadly, however, the markers of racism pervade our bastion of liberalism.  An examination of the available data tells the story only too well.  Whether it is the gigantic gap in our schools, with Black students graduating over 30 percentage points lower (55%) than White students (86.7%), or the juvenile arrest rates with Black juveniles being arrested at a shocking rate of 46.9% compared to the White arrest rate of 7.7%.

While some might jump to the conclusion that these horrific statistics are evidence of internal problems in the African-American community, Rev. Gee’s article reveals that the problems of racism are deeply rooted in systemic attitudes and perceptions about people of color.  Indeed, Rev. Gee himself has been a victim of racial profiling, as the Madison police dared to question him in his own car in his own church’s parking lot, investigating what he was doing there!  On another occasion, when he was questioned by the police while at a local bank, Rev. Gee asked why he was stopped.  A police officer told this honorable man of the cloth that it was because he fit a drug dealer profile!  It does not take a deep understanding of racism to understand that the only reason Rev. Gee fits a drug dealer profile, is that this well dressed professional happens to be black.

Thus, without enduring systemic change in the multiple layers of our society: schools, police, courts, housing, employment, and health care, the problem of racism is simply not going to go away.  The task is not easy, but if our nation can elect a Black President, surely we can bring the legacy of racism to an end in a liberal college town.

As I have written previously, systems change requires persistence.  It must start with how we treat our youth in school as generational change begins with the newest generation.  That means we must put an end to the schools to prison pipeline, which starts by ending the practice of routinely suspending students for mere disruptive behavior. Of course, if we do not resist the racism of low expectations, we will be doomed to stay mired in this painful cycle of low achievement rooted in racism.

After my meeting with Rev. Gee, we exchanged messages about how we both hope to work together on this important issue.  I felt truly blessed when Rev. Gee said that he “was inspired” by our meeting.  Indeed, Systems Change Requires Inspiring Action.  

In the coming weeks, I hope to work with Rev. Gee to bring together key community leaders to take his inspirational article from starting many important conversations to truly ending racism through systemic change.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


Wisconsin Charter School Bill Exacerbates Failure to Serve Students with Disabilities

As the Wisconsin legislature attempts once again to expand so-called independent charter schools statewide through the introduction of AB 549, it is important to analyze the impact of such an expansion on children with disabilities.  In Florida, an investigation showed that charter schools failed to serve children with disabilities.   As demonstrated below, it is clear that many provisions of AB 549 would encourage Wisconsin charter schools to refuse to serve children with disabilities thereby increasing the segregation already found by the US Dept. of Justice in Milwaukee’s voucher schools.  In addition, passage of AB 549 would complicate who is responsible for providing special education in charter schools.

The first problem with AB 549 is in its granting permission for a pupil to attend any independent charter school anywhere in Wisconsin.  Not only does this fly in the face of special education law’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team based placement process, but it also muddies the water of who is responsible for following both state and special education law.  Is it the charter school or the local school district which is responsible for providing students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE)?

The second problem is the mandatory requirement to approve additional charter contracts for charter schools that have a “proven track record of success.”  While this may seem attractive, the definition of “proven track record of success” is that students in the charter school must have a 10% or higher number of its students scoring advanced or proficient on state assessments than students attending the local school district in which the charter school is located.  Not only is this problematic due to the ability of students from outside the local district to attend the charter school, but it is also a clear disincentive for the charter school to admit any students with lower test scores including those with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELL).  Charges of exactly this kind of disability discrimination have arisen in Ohio.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the attempt by AB 549 to eliminate charter schools’ obligation to follow state special education law.  Despite this crude attempt, there is no doubt that charter schools are still public schools obligated to follow all federal civil rights laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

For the moment, it appears that while this bill may pass Wisconsin’s Assembly, it may not pass the Senate due to insufficient support from majority Republicans. Advocates for children with disabilities would do well to voice their opposition to AB 549 with moderate Senate Republicans for the reasons stated herein.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Establish an Independent Review Process in Cases of Police Caused Death


December 12, 2013-Wisconsin Assembly Criminal Justice Committee 

It is with great pleasure that I come before you today to testify in support of AB 409.  This bill represents an important first step to insure that law enforcement officials respect the Constitutional rights of the people of Wisconsin.  While the vast majority of law enforcement officials indeed serve and protect residents, citizens and visitors in Wisconsin, sadly and occasionally, rogue police officers violate the state and US Constitutional guarantees to be free from unwarranted abuse by police.

AB 409 represents merely a first step in providing an appropriate safeguard in the worst-case scenario of Constitutional abuse by law enforcement officials, i.e., the taking of someone’s life by such officials.  From my perspective, such independent review should happen in all cases of police brutality.

For example, I represent a middle school student with emotional disabilities in Sun Prairie who had his Constitutional rights violated when Officer Brandon Lingle slammed his head to the hard school floor without provocation earlier this year, giving my client a concussion and bleeding in his eye.  It also traumatized my client, who now is fearful of this police liaison officer who continues to maintain his post at Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School.  Fortunately, this incident was caught on a school security camera providing an excellent view of this Constitutional violation.

My client’s mother, who is a low-income single parent, sought an investigation by the Sun Prairie police, but that department merely informed her that Officer Lingle’s actions were appropriate.  As a result, she retained me and I have filed a federal lawsuit (Case No. 13-cv-414, W.D. Wis.) on my clients’ behalf to enforce his Constitutional rights.  In order to successfully prosecute this case, I have obtained an independent expert police conduct report, which has identified multiple violations of my client’s civil rights by Officer Lingle and the Sun Prairie police department, which clearly failed to provide appropriate supervision and discipline in this case.

The citizens of Wisconsin should not be forced to file a federal lawsuit to protect their Constitutional rights when police officers abuse them, especially when law enforcement officials kill them.  AB 409 takes an important first step to protect everyone from rogue police officers who kill anyone in Wisconsin.  I urge the Committee to promptly pass this bi-partisan measure.

Student Athletics Helps Improve Grades and Graduation Rates

While much of the current focus on high school athletics is on the impact of concussions in football and other contact sports, given the potential for injury, it is worth examining whether or not engagement in high school athletics leads to improved academic performance and graduation rates.  A few years ago, a comprehensive study of high school student athletes in Kansas demonstrated that despite no statistically significant difference in ACT scores (i.e., student athletes are not necessarily smarter), student athletes had significantly better grades, higher graduation rates, and lower drop out rates.  Of significant interest is the fact that these academic gains were shown across race and gender.

My closest observation of student athletics is through my son who participates in high school soccer, hockey and track & field.  While there are certainly times that I have concerns that his participation in athletics leads to insufficient sleep, as he comes home late from games or practices with homework yet to do, I also notice that he is more disciplined during sports seasons than during the off season.

One of the challenges in high school sports is how to deal with student athletes who do not maintain minimum academic standards.  While student athletes certainly should not be given a free pass to fail academically, the documented academic benefit of participation in student athletics suggests that school districts should provide more tutoring and social work resources towards enabling student athletes to continue to participate in the sports they love, leading to long term academic success rather than dropping out of high school.

My personal anecdotal evidence for the importance of student athletics is also strong.  I have watched some of my son’s teammates work harder academically in order to be able to play on his teams.  While others have had to drop out of sports due to academic failure, I do not believe these sports drop outs have led to improved academic performance.  After all, they have been forced to give up something they loved and kept them physically healthy, when tutoring or social work services could have kept them involved in sports and improved their academic performance.

My son’s high school hockey team has a tradition of hosting a Staff Appreciation Night during one home game each year.  Each player and student manager invites a school staff member  who means something special to them.  The staff wear the players’ away jerseys and receive a new appreciation for how hard their student athletes work.  Most important is the knowledge that both students and staff receive that they appreciate each other.  As my son’s teacher told me last night,

It is a privilege to be invited by your son to watch him play hockey.


One of my son’s teammates told me that he invited his teacher because that teacher,

always takes time to help people.

These relationships cannot be measured through grades or testing, but pictures such as these speak volumes as to the value of high school student athletics.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Inadequate Reporting Use of Seclusion & Restraint

As discussed previously, Wisconsin joined the majority of states in 2012, when it passed Act 125, restricting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on school children.  This law serves to keep children safe from the harmful effects of inappropriate seclusion and restraint.  However, in order for parents and citizens to understand whether or not the law is working in their local schools, the law also includes a reporting provision which requires that,

Annually by September 1, the principal of each school or his or her designee shall submit to the governing body a report containing all of the following:
1. The number of incidents of seclusion and of physical restraint in the school during the previous school year.
2. The total number of pupils who were involved in the incidents and the number of children with disabilities who were involved in the incidents.
This reporting is critical for may reasons:
  • It enables school boards and administrators to monitor use of these aversive practices in each school and provide training and support as needed;
  • It allows parents to have a better understanding of whether or not their children attend a school which avoids the use of seclusion  and restraint, or uses these aversive practices frequently; and
  • It provides parents useful information when they choose where to send their children to school under Wisconsin’s Open Enrollment law, or if they are contemplating moving to another school district.

Unfortunately, one of the compromises we made with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in order to obtain its support for passage of this legislation was that these seclusion and restraint reports are not provided to DPI.  Therefore, they cannot be easily obtained on a statewide basis.  Moreover, DPI has no way to determine whether school districts are complying with the law unless it receives a complaint.

Earlier this week, many Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin published a front page story exposing the lack of school district compliance with the reporting requirements of Act 125. For example, the Manitowoc School District reported 239 incidents of seclusion and restraint but failed to report such use by school building as required by lawSimilarly, the Appleton School District reported 637 incidents of seclusion and restraint, 85% of which were on students with disabilities, but also failed to follow the simple requirement of reporting by school building.

The value of this reporting is critical as reporter Kathleen Foody described in her story,

In some districts, the seclusion and restraint information is already inspiring change.

In the Green Bay Area Public School District, Hispanic students were removed from classrooms or physically restrained more often than their classmates: Hispanic students accounted for 30 percentof all incidents last year but only 24.7 percent of the district’s total enrollment.

Claudia Henrickson, Green Bay’s executive director of special education, said the number of Hispanic students in the report subject to seclusion or restraint immediately caught her attention. Special education staff are participating in an internal training program to discuss the issue, she said.

There are now 3 major questions as implementation of Act 125 moves forward:

  1. Will DPI investigate the known violations of the reporting provision as recently revealed by the press?
  2. Will the legislature amend Act 125 to require that annual seclusion and restraint reports be submitted to DPI and posted on-line for easy access? and
  3. Will school districts use their own reports to ramp up their efforts to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint in their schools?

For our children’s sake, the answer to all 3 questions should be a resounding YES.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.