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Milwaukee teacher shares her story after being attacked by parent; groups discuss MPS safety

Local community groups are gathering to discuss school safety at the state's largest school district: "We are in a constant fight or flight response."
Dr. King Elementary School
Posted at 6:18 AM, Jan 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-10 23:37:34-05

MILWAUKEE — Local community groups gathered to discuss school safety at the state's largest school district.

On Tuesday evening, leaders from a number of different groups, including the Black Educators Caucus Milwaukee, Anti-Racist White Educators and Com-Force MKE got together to talk about what they call the school culture, climate, and safety within Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

The groups say the need for the gathering comes from the school district not meeting its vision of providing a safe place that meets the needs of all. It cites recent events like:

  • Loss of 15 students in the 2021-22 school year
  • Stolen vehicles joyriding on school campuses
  • String of parents attempting to or successfully attacking teachers

MPS' mission statement says the district "Is a diverse district that welcomes all students and prepares them for success in higher education, post-educational opportunities, work, and citizenship."

Leaders say their hope is to "engage with the community and hold MPS accountable" for things they say need to change.

Horrible attack moves Milwaukee teacher into action

Angela Harris is the chairwoman of the Black Educators Caucus. She says she has been holding the new conference to improve the culture, climate, and safety in MPS schools.

Harris sat down with TMJ4's Carole Meekins to discuss a horrible attack that moved her to action.

The horrific event she endured at school is not far from the teacher's mind. She is on leave from teaching at Dr. King Elementary School in Milwaukee and still feels the trauma after a parent attacked her.

"Wednesday, Nov. 9, I was attacked by a parent outside of my school," Harris shared.

attack1.jpg
Angela Harris was attacked by a parent in November at Dr. King Elementary School in Milwaukee.

"When I think of this escalation of violence, I think, how are you able to teach?" Meekins asked.

"That's the perfect question," Harris responded. "If students don't feel safe, they can't learn. If teachers don't feel safe, they can't teach."

Harris got caught in the melee involving the parents of a student she did not even teach.

"We began to hear (a) commotion, arguing, and yelling. One of the scholars yelled, 'he has a gun.' Everyone took off running. It was very chaotic," Harris said. "I said to her, 'I'm going to call 911.' The parent grabbed me and said, 'you're not going anywhere.' She grabbed me by my hair and began to punch me repeatedly. We ended up spinning around, spinned me backward. I banged my head on the ground and after that, I cannot remember much because I think I was unconscious for a bit."

Harris tore a muscle in her shoulder and had a neck sprain, including bumps and bruises all over her body. Now she warns steps must be taken to stop this kind of violence in schools.

attack2.jpg
Angela Harris was attacked by a parent in November at Dr. King Elementary School in Milwaukee.

"Never did I ever think I would be going through something like this as a teacher," she said. "Educators do a really good job of crafting and trying to create environments for their students. That was violated on that day. It was violated for them, it was violated for me. We are in a constant fight or flight response."

Harris said she chose Dr. King as the school she wanted to work at, but now she might not be able to return there. She is still reeling from the attack but doesn't want to leave a job she loves.

"I'm an educator through and through," she said. "It's my heart, my passion, my purpose. Now, we just have to make sure that what happened to me, doesn't happen to anyone else."

Dr. King Elementary School
Dr. King Elementary School

Her goal is simple - continue her passion for teaching without fear for her safety.

"We have to turn pain into power. Sometimes sadness can become a strength," Harris said.

Harris is on leave from teaching and has hired an attorney.

Advocates push to make schools safer

"In 2022, we had 15 students that were victims of gun violence. We've had issues with the joyriding of stolen cars on school property. We've had teachers who have been threatened or viciously attacked," said Harris.

Harris, alongside other advocates, asked district officials Tuesday evening to create and implement old and new strategies to make schools safer.

"If they would just use the policies and the laws that they author and that govern their jurisdiction we could actually make a difference," said Debbie Keuther, the director of K-12 Literacy.

In a statement from MPS officials, they wrote, "MPS works diligently to provide an environment that is safe and welcoming for all. Including working directly with the Department of Justice, meeting yearly with students, staff, and community members to modify its parent/student handbook, along with hiring a company that will conduct comprehensive safety assessments of all MPS buildings in 2023."

But Harris and others believe more needs to be done. This includes hiring a restorative practices director, offering trauma-informed care training for staff, and expanding trauma and mental health services.

"When we have a community that is so deeply traumatized, there’s nothing else that’s going to happen besides that trauma coming into our school building," said Harris. "We need to think about what we are doing to help our students through that trauma."

Harris and other supporters then went a step further, walking through the doors of the district office and right into the school board's monthly parent and community engagement meeting where they made their voices heard.

"We need to have a meeting, a public hearing, where we address the school culture climate, and safety of Milwaukee Public Schools," said Harris.

MPS officials add that they're currently in the planning process to get feedback from students, staff, families, and members of the community to help the district set its priorities over the next five years. All Milwaukee residents will be invited to share their feedback with the district.

You can read the full statement from MPS below:

"MPS works diligently to provide an environment that is safe and welcoming for all. We have policies in place to address safety concerns and we work proactively to improve the culture, climate and safety of our schools every day.

MPS works directly with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure all schools are safe. Each year, every MPS school performs safety drills and submits their emergency plans for approval to the Board of School Directors. After review, these plans are forwarded to the DOJ.

On a daily basis, plans are in place to address a variety of situations; these plans are supported by approximately 220 school safety assistants who work in our buildings.

Our Department of Student Services meets yearly with students, staff and community members to discuss and modify our Parent/Student Handbook on Rights, Responsibilities and Discipline.

As a result of a Board Resolution passed in December 2022, MPS has hired a company that will conduct comprehensive safety assessments of all MPS buildings in 2023.

A statement shared by the Black Educators Caucus stating that ten years have passed since MPS has asked for public feedback about climate and safety is patently untrue. MPS provides regular opportunities to receive feedback from students, staff, families and members of the community. We are working on new initiatives for the near future.

Each month, the Board of School Directors Committee on Parent and Community Engagement (PACE) meets. Four times per year, MPS holds Community Conversations to hear directly from residents about the issues that are affecting them and to learn how we can better serve our students. Our next Community Conversation will be held Wednesday, January 11. Anyone who wants to attend can register online to take part and offer opinions and suggestions.

Each year, a School Culture and Climate Survey is conducted to help create schools that feel safe and welcoming to students, families and staff.

Additionally, MPS is engaged in a strategic planning process to receive additional feedback from students, staff, families and members of the community to help the district set its priorities over the next five years. All city of Milwaukee residents will be invited to share their feedback with the district. More information about this process will be released next week.

We continue our efforts to meet the needs of all through education, programs and opportunities for every family within MPS. This work continues each day through the efforts of our educators to provide the best environment for all students."

—Nicole Armendariz, Director of Communications & Marketing

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