At the end of the school day on Jan. 16, Jefferson Middle School teachers were summoned to an all-staff meeting. They were greeted by the head of the district, interim Superintendent Jane Belmore. It was just the latest surprise for Jefferson faculty after a tumultuous first semester and rocky start to the new year.
Tim LeMonds, district spokesperson, says Belmore was there to inform staff that Jefferson’s principal, Tequila Kurth, was “taking an extended leave of absence.” He says this was her decision and he does not know what prompted it.
Belmore told the faculty that Mary Kelley, a former principal at Black Hawk and Toki middle schools as well as East High, was coming out of retirement to serve as interim principal.
“We have a very comprehensive support plan in place for Jefferson during this transition period. We are also providing additional support staff,” says LeMonds. “The district wants to ensure that all the needs of [teachers] are met and we can finish the year strong.”
Kelley will be Jefferson’s fourth principal in four years. Isthmus contacted a dozen current teachers at Jefferson. Two responded and only one agreed to be interviewed, on the condition of anonymity. Alex, a pseudonym for the classroom teacher, says the principal turnover at the middle school has been “ridiculous.”
“It has created a culture of confusion and misunderstanding from top to bottom,” says Alex. “The thing that makes education work is administrative support for the staff so they can better help the students. I’m not seeing that at Jefferson.”
Tension between administrators and staff at Jefferson was exacerbated after Dec. 3, when a student shot a BB gun at two classmates, who received minor injuries. The shooter was arrested on Dec. 4. Another boy at Jefferson was also arrested that same day for bringing the BB gun into the school. The episode occurred just a day after a high school student in Waukesha brought a similar weapon into a school and was shot three times by a police officer.
Alex says students had questions about the BB gun incident and Jefferson teachers didn’t know what to say.
“Initially, we were not told the whole story. Then we are just blindsided with information and emails and letters from principals and the superintendent,” says Alex. “We as a staff did not have all the information. That seems to be a repeating factor at Jefferson for things large and small.”
The day before it was announced Kurth would no longer be continuing as the principal of Jefferson, police reported that another student at the middle school was taken to the hospital after being punched by a peer.
“We recognize recent challenges at the school and our goal is for this to be a smooth transition,” says LeMonds. “Our superintendent was there to assure [Jefferson staff] that the district has a robust plan to provide additional support.”
On top of news headlines over safety problems at Jefferson, the district is also investigating a whistleblower who is believed to be a teacher at the school.
Using an anonymous email account, the educator leaked to Isthmus and Channel3000 the behavior record of the student who shot two classmates with a BB gun. Isthmus did not report on the document when it was received on Dec. 11. But the television station ran with it, using the headline, “Student in BB gun incident previously threatened to ‘kill everyone in the school.’”
The leaked document was a report from EduClimber, software that teachers use to track student behavior incidents. It showed that the student on Sept. 20 was yelling threats in the hallway including “how he hated school and wanted to shoot it up and kill everyone in the school.”
The staff member who documented the incident also wrote that the student’s “language felt like attention seeking behavior rather than actual threats.”
“However, I have no idea how the students in class felt about his comments regarding shooting up the school and killing people,” adds the Jefferson teacher in the EduClimber report. “Over time he calmed down and was able to stay in the class.”
For weeks, Isthmus has been in contact with the whistleblower via email. The teacher says the document was leaked to the media because it was proof that Kurth had “been lying.”
After the BB gun incident, Kurth had written in a Dec. 3 email to parents that “at this time we do not have any reason to believe the student intended to harm anyone with it.”
A Jefferson parent, who did not wish to give her name, says her daughter was on the bus when the incident occurred. She was upset about how Kurth handled the situation, especially after she saw the Channel3000 story.
“[The story] revealed that this same boy threatened to kill everyone at the school and was involved in 25 incidents in just a few months. That seems like Dr. Kurth lied,” says the parent. “A typical person would know that his threats and behavior go hand-in-hand and that he needs help. Plus, it’s just scary to think that someone threatened our kids and we were never told by the school, and that the same kid was still allowed at school and on the school bus.”
LeMonds says charges that Kurth lied are conjecture but declined to comment further. He says the district is trying to find out who leaked the behavior document because sharing that information violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“Whatever the motivation, this is a violation of federal law,” says LeMonds. “We just can’t go down the road where employees think it’s okay to release confidential information about students.”
Alex, who is not the whistleblower, says that the school has been struggling with a small group of students “who aren’t participating in the academic culture” at Jefferson.
“They aren’t going to class. They are screwing around. They are knocking exit signs off the doors. They are creating all sorts of mischief because they don’t know how to be in class and be a student,” says Alex. “They can’t adhere to principles we are trying to promote within the school in terms of language, learning and respect. It creates a really unbalanced learning environment. These are the kids that bring BB guns to school because they think that’s a fun thing to do.”
The whistleblower didn’t stop after leaking the behavior report. LeMonds says the district believes the same staff member is behind “a campaign of harassment” waged against Kurth and other Jefferson administrators. Since late 2019, the whistleblower has sent “anonymous emails on a daily basis” that now total several hundred. The emails are being sent to Kurth and other administrators at Jefferson, school board members, district officials including Belmore, community education advocates, and the media. Isthmus has received (or been forwarded) dozens of these emails.
A Dec. 6 email from the whistleblower to Kurth, received by Isthmus, recommends she resign because “the kind of press that will come with what you are doing at your school will adversely affect your future career.”
The Madison Police Department is assisting in identifying the anonymous emailer. LeMonds says he “hopes the harassment wasn’t the reason” Kurth decided to take an extended leave of absence. Regardless, he says the district intends “to put a stop to it.”
“Some of the language is very concerning and disturbing. And frankly, some of the stuff is just strange. It’s been a big distraction and destructive to what we are trying to achieve at Jefferson,” says LeMonds. “The language being used would make anyone a little nervous walking out of the building at night. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The whistleblower says the torrent of emails was sent out of desperation for the situation at the school, and the frequent messages were not intended as threats.
“The context is the school board, district administration and [Madison Teachers Inc.] that constantly failed to effectively and proactively address culture and climate issues [at Jefferson],” says the whistleblower. “Parents and students and teachers receive little response, partial truths, and outright lies from leadership at Jefferson and the district. So I began the last venue left; begging [Kurth and other leadership at Jefferson] to leave and explaining that should they fail to leave, their actions would be exposed.”
Mauricio Escobedo, who was a math teacher at Jefferson, believes he was fired right before winter break because he asked pointed questions about school safety at a staff meeting following the BB gun incident.
Escobedo moved to Wisconsin in March 2019 and started teaching at Jefferson in the fall. He
previously taught at public schools in the Los Angeles area for several decades. He says the district told him he was being let go because he failed to make progress on securing a permanent teaching credential from the state.
“But that’s nonsense. I had a year to secure that credential. Once they had their excuse, they were in a real big hurry to let me go,” Escobedo tells Isthmus. “Under Dr. Tequila Kurth’s leadership, teachers and students were not safe. Teachers are afraid to say anything, and they should be. Look what happened to me.”
LeMonds says he can’t comment on personnel matters.
“What I can say in general is, anyone hired into a teaching position is required by law to have appropriate licensure as issued by DPI. If the employee does not already have a DPI-issued teaching license, the terms of their employment include they must apply for one by an established deadline,” says LeMonds. “This is a condition of employment that they are made aware of at the time of hire. Human Resources works closely with all employees to assist them in this regard.”
LeMonds is frustrated by the accusation that the district is retaliating against teachers who speak out. He says no employees have been disciplined or terminated because of the investigation into the leaked EduClimber document or the anonymous emails.
“We haven’t even interviewed anyone about that situation yet,” add LeMonds.
Escobedo isn’t buying it. He says the district does not support educators who set high academic expectations for their students.
“If you’re a teacher who bucks the system, you’re not going to last very long,” says Escobedo. “And that’s a crime against the children.”
Escobedo says the Madison school district treats struggling students “like delicate flowers.”
“I’ve never worked [for a school district] more obsessed with mediocrity…. Teachers are expected to coddle the kids with little regard to academic achievement,” says Escobedo, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1960s. “This school district talks a lot about social justice, racism and restorative justice. I’m all for that. But you don’t hear a lot about academic standards or results. This attitude is killing students. Children rise to the expectations set for them and Madison expects very little from some students.”
Escobedo says he’s not the whistleblower at Jefferson. The teacher who has been sending anonymous emails also denies that Escobedo is the whistleblower or helped leak confidential student information.
Alex echoes Escobedo’s assertion that academic performance doesn’t seem to be a priority at the school.
“We graduate kids from middle school who may not be able to read or do simple algebra or long division,” says Alex. “That happens every year.”
Alex says administrative leaders at Jefferson have “good ideals” and are doing their best to engage struggling students. But the teacher says scrutiny often turns on staff who report bad behavior too frequently.
“The more a teacher documents behavioral infractions, then the administration goes after them, asking, ‘Why is this behavior happening all the time in your classroom?’ So teachers just stop reporting it,” says Alex. “In the end, blame gets put on teachers and the kids learn they don’t have to do the work or behave.”
Alex says it’s only a small group of students — about 10 percent — who aren’t getting with the program. But their behavior has an effect on all the kids.
“Instruction falls by the wayside when I have to leave the classroom and chase after a kid who says he is going to beat up another kid,” says Alex. “I gotta do my best to stop that behavior, obviously, but I’m leaving 30 or so students unattended.”
Whether the district had just cause or not, Escobedo’s departure did have a chilling effect on staff at Jefferson.
Alex believes Escobedo was let go because of the investigation into the whistleblower. He says Escobedo was “super compassionate and very well liked” by students and staff.
“I believe they were looking for a scapegoat. What else are we supposed to think? [The district] needed a fall guy and they picked him,” says Alex. “Mauricio had the courage to ask questions that some of us were not comfortable asking. Unfortunately, it seems to have cost him his job.”
Alex says it seems like the district is “head hunting for people.”
“They are looking to out the people who make things difficult for the administration. I’ve never had so many classroom visits and it just makes everyone feel like they have a bullseye on their back,” says Alex, a veteran teacher who has taught at Jefferson for several years. “A teacher who pushes back too much is playing a dangerous game with their career.”
LeMonds says the district has been aware of concerns at Jefferson and had been conducting a review of the school for months. He says it is now time for everybody to come together “to do what’s best for the students.” A meeting with Jefferson parents is scheduled for Feb. 6 with district officials and interim principal Mary Kelley.
LeMonds says Belmore told teachers at the Jan. 16 meeting that the district “is hitting the reset button” at Jefferson. But he’s troubled that another flurry of emails from the whistleblower came in right after the staff meeting, which was intended to clear the air.
“We just want the emails, the harassment, to stop. We thought the meeting with Jefferson [staff] would bring an end to it. But then we get more emails and they are mentioning other schools,” says LeMonds. “We just can’t have that. It’s been toxic to the climate at Jefferson.”
The whistleblower tells Isthmus the anonymous emails have now become “counter-productive” and will cease. The educator is convinced that the district would rather focus on investigating teachers instead of finding a way to engage students who are struggling and causing safety issues in the classroom.
“They are using [the investigation of the whistleblower] to tell themselves and tell others that the REAL problem is with some nutcase,” says the whistleblower. “The emails were intended to do what it did: get the [district] to react.”