Equality advocate and Shawnee Mission board president tangle over request for data on student discipline rates by race

Brad Stratton expressed his displeasure with the tenor of an email equality advocate Liz Meitl had sent him and Superintendent Michael Fulton.

Tensions that had apparently been simmering for some time boiled over into public view Monday as the president of the Shawnee Mission school board and an outspoken advocate for improvements in the district’s special education programs got into a contentious exchange.

Liz Meitl, co-founder of the UNITED program that’s focused on training Shawnee Mission teachers on empathy and diversity, spoke during the open forum portion of Monday’s meeting to raise concerns about what she described as persistent behavioral issues at schools across the district, suggesting that Shawnee Mission had failed to set standard discipline protocols and that a patchwork of policies created confusion among staff and students. She said staff turnover, class size and teacher workload compounded the problem.

Liz Meitl spoke about concerns with variance in approaches to discipline during the open forum portion of Monday’s board meeting.

As Meitl finished her remarks and moved to leave the podium, Board President Brad Stratton asked her to remain at the front of the room in case the board had any clarifying questions.

Stratton proceeded to ask Meitl to help him better understand a data request she had submitted asking for information on Shawnee Mission’s discipline rates based on students’ race. Stratton pressed Meitl on whether she was making the information request in her capacity with an organization or simply as an individual. He asked whether the information she requested already existed, or whether it would require substantial staff time to compile.

“Are we to stop everything that we are doing and give a patron data that doesn’t currently exist but that you requested?” Stratton said. “So we have to take staff time to dissect the data and provide it to you. Do you think that’s fair to everyone else out here?”

“You all should be asking for that data for yourselves. And the fact that you haven’t, the fact that that data doesn’t exist in some form, speaks more to the problems in this district than the fact that you won’t give them to me,” Meitl replied. “I’m asking for data that indicates how many black students, how many brown students and how many students with disabilities were expelled from different high schools and middle schools last year. Everybody in this room should know that data. That is step one in creating more equitable discipline plans.”

Stratton then pushed back on assertions Meitl had made in an email sent to both himself and to Superintendent Michael Fulton last week regarding the data she sought in which she expressed frustrations with the lack of response from the district. In that email, Meitl said that she was “horrified” that Fulton had not requested the data she sought himself.

“How can you claim to be committed to serving our students of color when you haven’t requested copies of basic discipline data?” she wrote.

Later in the email, she alluded to Fulton’s and Stratton’s sex and race.

“What the public does care about is a story of white men with power denying students of color the opportunity to just learning spaces, and that’s a story you’re making it really easy to tell,” Meitl said. “Please help me get the reports and we can all work forward from here towards a better place.”

That line in particular appeared to irk Stratton, who read it aloud in the board chambers Monday, and took umbrage with Meitl’s assertion that Fulton had not been proactive enough on issues of diversity and equality.

“I don’t suggest that is a way to interact with the district,” Stratton said. “I will take public hits all day long. I am an elected person. We brought [Dr. Fulton] from St. Louis with an incredible amount of experience in managing diverse situations, and within nine months he’s being called out by his race and by his gender. I ask that you please engage with us in a civil manner, and we will with you.”

Video of Meitl’s open forum remarks and the exchange with Stratton are embedded below:

After several minutes of contentious exchange, Stratton told Meitl that moving forward he would serve as her sole point of contact on district issues and that he would provide her with an opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with him before each board meeting. Here’s a statement Stratton provided on the situation after the meeting:

As the school board president, I am providing the opportunity to have a regular one-on-one meeting with Ms. Meitl before each board meeting so as to free up the time of our staff to focus on the work of the school district. These one-on-one conversations between myself and Ms. Meitl will take place in the district board room at 3pm prior to each board meeting. The public, board members and staff are welcome to attend and observe our conversation. I will schedule a one hour time frame for these meetings where she will be afforded ample opportunity to ask me questions about the school district and I will have a series of questions for her as well. This does not preclude her or anyone else from speaking during the public comments portion of our board meetings however I think this one-on-one meeting format with Ms. Meitl will be better time spent for all concerned.

Meitl attends practically every school board meeting and has in recent years been a vocal critic of parts of the district’s special education practices. In 2017, she filed a complaint with the Kansas State Department of Education suggesting that the district was out of compliance with state regulations on teacher licensure and student contact hours. The state found evidence to support some of Meitl’s claims, but said it could not confirm her broad assertion that the district has¬†purposefully steered special education resources toward schools with the most affluent families.