Zero-tolerance has got to go; that’s one of the chants from a student walk-out last Friday protesting the firing of West High School security guard Marlon Anderson.
Students and staff marched over two miles from West High School to the downtown school district administration building in protest, circling the building several times while chanting “Bring back Marlon” and “Context matters.”
Black Student Union member Grace Middleton was one such protester. She said she believes the district’s universal policy is unjust, and fails to address instances where black students are subject to physical violence.
“For a white man to be able to pull the hair out of a black girl’s head and still have the opportunity to have an investigation [and] to have the chance to resign, and Marlon, who was defending his name saying ‘don’t call me that’, it took an eighth of the time to fire him,” Middleton says.
“So, like we’ve been saying, context does matter.”
Anderson was dismissed last week for repeating a racial slur back to a student who had used it first during an altercation between the student and a West High School assistant principal. The school district currently has a zero-tolerance policy for staff use of the slur, which means it doesn’t consider the context of why it was said.
Outside the walls of Madison West High School, there has since been an outpouring of support for Anderson. His story has made national headlines, and Cher, in a tweet, offered to pay his legal fees. And the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County has hired Anderson as their Director of Program Operations until his appeal is finalized with the Madison school district.
In a community letter, the CEO of Dane County Boys & Girls Club Michael Johnson and Young Gifted & Black Coalition spokesperson Brandi Grayson offered additional policy change recommendations to the MMSD.
In the letter, Grayson and Johnson recommend the district create a committee of students, teachers, and leaders of color to rewrite the policy so that context is considered in order to protect both students and school staff.
They also ask that the district not only rehire Marlon, but also consider promoting him.
One City Schools founder, president, and CEO Kaleem Caire says at least one white teacher has been unfairly dismissed under the zero-tolerance policy.
“For that teacher they were distraught,” Caire says.
“Parents were worried about them, family and friends were worried about them because they felt like they were forever going to be cursed with being considered racist and saying something terrible to a kid,” he adds.
At Friday’s protest, Marlon Anderon’s son Noah reiterated in a speech that his father’s dismissal under the current policy was more harmful than helpful. Noah goes to the same high school where his father was fired and is currently president of the Black Student Union there.
“Context means everything. Whether you black, brown, white — it mean everything,” Anderson says.
“If you have the intent to teach upon the word, to educate people on the word, why they shouldn’t use the word, why this word hurts people, then I feel like you shouldn’t be fired,” he adds.
Madison Metro School District’s board president Gloria Reyes said in a statement the board does intend to review the zero-tolerance policy.
“We are working to make our school climates the best they can be for all students and staff. We have taken a tough stance on racial slurs and believe that language has no place in school. We have also heard from our community about the complexity involved, and our duty is to examine it,” Reyes says.
“As a board we plan to review our approach, the underlying policy, and examine them with a racial equity lens, understanding that universal policies can often deepen inequality. We will ask the community for help in that process.”
Reyes also says she has requested this item be placed on the school board agenda as soon as possible.
In a statement released on Friday, Interim Superintendent Jane Belmore thanked students for their activism and reiterated that Madison schools would take a closer look at the policy.
Chali Pittman contributed to this report.