Saying he didn’t believe a crime was committed, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined to file charges against Robert Mueller-Owens, the Positive Behavior Support Coach who allegedly assaulted an 11-year-old Black girl at Whitehorse Elementary School on February 13.
“To be clear, the police department never established probable cause to make an arrest. However, in this case I asked to review their decision and decide for myself whether my office should file criminal charges,” he said in a press conference Tuesday. “It is my job to review all the information and render an opinion based on how the law defines a crime. I’ve done that and in this case I do not believe a crime was committed.”
The decision was met with outrage from the girl’s family.
“If my granddaughter was a white girl, it never would have happened and if that teacher was a black man, he would be arrested,” said Laronda Bryant, the mother of Mikeia Price, the student’s mother, after the announcement. “I am outraged.”
Price and Bryant, along with their Pastor Marcus Allen, held a press conference earlier Tuesday to express their frustration at the process that ultimately culminated in no charges.
“For the past three weeks, the mother has been trying to trust the system and all the agencies involved, but each meeting she has attended, it has been shared with her that someone else has failed her child,” Allen said. “The police stated they had to jump through hoops to interview witnesses because of MMSD. Child protective services has said they had to wrestle with the police to ensure the process was conducted properly. However, the main thing that is consistently being forgotten about is this child and her family.”
After the decision was announced, the family said they felt the process was all for show.
“(Ozanne) had everything,” Bryant said. “The video, the witness, and he had my granddaughter, the victim, so he didn’t need all this messy parading around with the three whole weeks running us around, telling us all type of crap that he was doing. He wasn’t doing nothing. He already had his decision. He was not going to arrest that white man.”
Conclusions Were Wrong, DA Says
Ozanne said many of the narratives and conclusions circulating in the public since Madison365 first reported this incident on February 20 were understandable but incorrect.
“As a person of color growing up in this community, attending public and private schools and now parenting two children of color in this community, I am personally aware of the racial inequities that historically and currently paint a very different experience for persons of color living in Madison,” he said. “These daily challenges are exhausting and traumatizing. Therefore, it is completely understandable that some people have reached conclusions about what occur in Whitehorse (Elementary) School. However, in this instance, some of those conclusions or premature and not accurate.”
He said he had seen allegations and misinformed conclusions “reported as fact” but did not specify which conclusions in the press or public were wrong.
Madison police released their 80-page report of the incident following Ozanne’s announcement. The report describes an incident that escalated from a student already being in a “bad mood” and misbehaving by spraying Febreze air freshener into a classroom. Later, the student apparently threatened to spray it again. The classroom teacher, Barbara Pietz, said she was sensitive to the spray and called in Mueller-Owens and special education aide Tamercia Gue to take the air freshener. As has been previously reported, Mueller-Owens then attempted to persuade the student to leave the room with him and when she refused, told Pietz to take the rest of the class out of the room. At this point the student relented and said the class could stay and that she would go. Mueller-Owens put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her toward the door, according to witness reports, prompting her to tell him to take his hands off of her, at which point she apparently flailed her hands and he pushed her out into the hallway and into the lockers and to the ground.
The police report says the girl told police she was punched in the arm and had three braids pulled from her head, and that she had a bloody lip, though the police officer reported the lip was not bloody when he was speaking with the student.
The report contains several witness accounts, including that of Tammy Gue, a special education aide who the girl’s mother said intervened to protect the student. Gue has not been previously identified.
Gue stated, according to the police report, that she saw “physical aggression” in Mueller-Owens and that there was “no justification” for the way Mueller-Owens acted. She told police that she tried to intervene and that Mueller-Owens grabbed both her and the girl and threw them both to the ground.
Other witnesses said they saw the student swing a hand or fist at Mueller-Owens after he initiated contact with her by pushing her toward the classroom door, and that she knocked his glasses off.
Teacher Carol Rybak, who also witnessed the incident, said she thought Mueller-Owens was using “textbook” techniques of nonviolent crisis intervention, only touching the girl to restrain her and protect himself.
The police report indicates that other than Mueller-Owens, the student and her mother, witnesses — including Gue — were not interviewed until February 19, six days after the incident occured, or later.
DA Investigated Mother & Family
Police records indicate that Ozanne directed the Madison Police to request records regarding the girl and her family from Child Protective Services on February 26, which they did. Ozanne himelf then emailed CPS on March 4 seeking those records. Later that day, the Dane County Department of Human Services rebuked that request, declining even to respond as to whether any such records exist.
“You have not provided any reason why you would be seeking reports related to the alleged victim and her family, nor in what way those records would be relevant to the current investigation,” wrote Eve Dorman, Deputy Corporation Counsel for the Dane County Department of Human Services. “(The student’s) parents are not the alleged maltreaters in this case, and there is no viable reason for your office to be seeking records related to them in this case.”
Price said Ozanne asked her during the investigation whether she had ever abused her child.
“The DA is reviewing the process and he’s interviewing me. He’s investigating me as if I am the perpetrator,” she said. “He wants to know, have I ever been in Child Protective Services? Have I ever abused my kid? The whole system is super stressful. Super hurtful. It makes me feel like me and my kid don’t even deserve a chance.”
Ozanne declined to say why he looked into whether Price had ever abused her child.
“I do not know if she feels that we were investigating her,” he said, “but my understanding after meeting with her, the grandmother and the pastor is that they wanted this fully investigated and that’s what I believe occurred.”
There is no indication in the report, however, that Ozanne sought any records from CPS, or from the school district, regarding Mueller-Owens or his background, except in an interview with Mueller-Owens himself, which was conducted on February 28 – more than two weeks after the incident – in the office of Mueller-Owens’ attorney.
School Response Still Ongoing
Ozanne declined to speculate as to whether any workplace violations had taken place.
In a statement, MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the school’s investigation will be ongoing with all the information from the police report.
“Based on the DA’s decision, we will now use all available information from the police reports to understand every fact, and take appropriate action,” she wrote. “Schools exist to nurture, uplift, and care for students. We must take every action to ensure that is true for every child. The employee will remain on leave while we complete our review and determine next steps.”
Despite previously pledging to release the video upon completion of the police investigation, the school district has now declined to do so, saying that it is a “student record.” A district representative said the video has been released to the family, but the family has not yet indicated whether they will make it public.
The Whitehorse incident follows at least six school staff and substitutes have been terminated or forced to resign after using racial slurs against students in the last four months. Cheatham issued an open letter to the community last week, pledging to address racial inequities in the schools through a series of community meetings, additional training for staff, a new and simpler system for students, staff and parents to report incidents of racism, among other measures.
Parents of Black students issued an open letter of their own to the school board with five specific demands to address racial disparities and requesting that those demands be taken up at the next school board meeting on March 18.
Read the full police report, with the names of minors redacted, here. Some of the witness reports contain profanity.