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Resident files race discrimination complaint against MMSD

By Emily Kumlien, ekumlien@wisctv.com
Published On: Dec 11 2013 09:13:27 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 12 2013 07:14:28 AM CST

MADISON, Wis. -

A longtime Madison civil rights advocate has filed a race discrimination complaint against the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Dr. Richard Harris, a Madison native, wrote a book last year called "Growing up Black in South Madison." He thought that would be his last big project until he heard from the local black community.

“I was just floored, and I shared it with some people and we knew it was bad but we didn't know it was that bad," said Harris, whose recent book prompted questions about the current state of race in Madison schools.

"Can you imagine an all-white school and that is worse than Jackson, Miss.? They have black teachers in all of their schools so a lily-white situation is not good,” Harris said.

The 76-year-old sent an open records request to Madison's Board of Education asking for hiring records. He said the numbers reveal 22 percent of students are black, but just 2 percent of the district's teachers are black. He also said 72 percent of teachers are white women.

"That is a recipe for disaster, and I am not attacking white women teachers. There are some that are very good and there are some that may not be, but it has a devastating impact on black children to see people they are not familiar with teaching at those schools," Harris said.

Harris has filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education-Office of Civil Rights.

"A number of people would say, ‘Hey, let this thing rest. Why don't we get a citywide collation to look into it and if you are going to do this, it will cause animosity.’ But no one ever said that and I am pleased at that," Harris said.

Harris also said he thinks the amount of black staff in the facility should go up 12 percent, 4 percent a year.

“You want to shoot for 4 percent a year. You may not reach it, but it’s better than 2 percent,” Harris said.

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, media relations director for the district, sent News 3 a statement.

"With the release of our strategic framework in July, we've made increasing the quality and diversity of our staff a major focus of our work,” Strauch-Nelson said.

“It is one of five major priorities. In fact, when the superintendent started back in April, she asked a team of national experts to take a deep look at several parts of our district, including our hiring practices, because of concerns that were raised during her entry phase by both staff and community members. As a result, we're currently working on a complete overhaul of our recruitment, hiring and induction practices to support the hiring of a high-quality, diverse workforce. That overhaul will result in changes in the upcoming hiring season,” Strauch-Nelson said. “At the same time, our board is working on a redesign of our student code of conduct aimed at increasing restorative practices and decreasing disparities in our suspensions and expulsions."

In 1979, Harris and a group of residents initiated a race discrimination claim against MMSD. Four years later, the Office of Civil Rights ruled in Harris' favor and ordered the school to develop a plan to insure racial equality. That same office is now looking at this new case, but there is no timetable for taking it on.

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