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Principal who allegedly attacked 11-year-old student will not face charges

Whitehorse Middle School acting principal and “positive behavior support coach” Rob Mueller-Owens — the perpetrator of perfume-sparked student abuse report — faces no criminal charges, says the district attorney Monday.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

A white teacher accused of attacking his 11-year-old black female student last month will not face charges, a county attorney ruled Monday. 

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne revealed the Madison Police Department was unable to find “probable cause for the arrest” of Whitehorse Middle School acting principal and “positive behavior support coach” Rob Mueller-Owens. 

Ozanne said conclusions about the extent of the abuse were part of a “premature” narrative influenced by experiences shared by other people of color. He also determined a “crime was not committed” after reviewing the police reports, a Child Protective Services report, witness statements, medical records, the school's use of force policies and video of the incident. 

MPD Chief Michael Koval explained Mueller-Owens’ actions are protected under state law, which allows school personnel to physically restrain a student under certain circumstances.

“We balance our natural inclination to defend our kids with the obligations of being an officer of the court, pledged to ensuring that investigations are thorough, objective and that constitutional protections of fundamental fairness and due process are adhered to in our system of justice,” Koval said. 

Mueller-Owens allegedly pushed the student and pulled her braids out. He has been on administrative leave since the incident, pending an administrative review following the conclusion of the criminal case.

On the front page of their website, the Madison Metropolitan School District wrote they “stand by all of their students, staff and families.” They gave a “shout-out” to Mueller-Owens prior to the incident, calling him a “tremendous addition” to the middle school.

Mikiea Price, the student’s mother, said her daughter was “crying and her lip was cracked, bleeding and she handed me three of her braids that were pulled out from her scalp.” 

According to the student’s statement to the police, she had perfume that she was asked by her teacher, Barbara Pietz, not to put on. She acknowledged that she was being disruptive when Mueller-Owens came into the room and told her to get out, to which she responded, “No, I’m at my spot, doing my work.” 

Pietz and Mueller-Owens left the room to speak, presumably about the student. After they finished, Mueller-Owens forced the door open and tried to get her to leave again. She said that he pushed her shoulder twice while she said, “Don’t put your hands on me.” 

The students in the classroom were encouraged to leave by Mueller-Owens, however the student said she would leave instead. Then, Mueller-Owens pushed her back through the doorway and punched her left arm, according to the student’s statement. 

Mueller-Owens’ case reports paint a different story in which he claims the student used “intense language” toward him and “started wailing on him, punching him in the face and head.” He also mentioned he never grabbed her hair intentionally, but it was “everywhere.”

Gary Pihlaja, a reporting officer, watched the result of the in-class interaction from the hallway video surveillance. 

Pihlaja testified the video showed a “larger statured person” pushing backwards a “smaller person” who was simultaneously winding up a punch. However, the “smaller person” did not throw a punch before getting shoved into the lockers in the hallway. 

Another reporting officer, Druri Tobias, found evidence of no intentional physical violence from either party. 

“It didn’t appear that either one of them were punching each other,” Tobias said. “It didn’t look like Mueller-Owens intentionally flipped [the student] over and body slammed her. It looked like they all tripped and fell on top of each other.”

Price said in a news conference the investigation has been unfair from its start on Feb. 13. She said upon arriving to the school, they had not contacted her, the police or child protective services. 

“When I did get in contact with police, we had a child that stated she was abused, a teacher witnessing my child being abused and we also had video showing abuse,” she said. “And this man still hasn't been arrested."

She said after the press conference that the district attorney “didn’t thoroughly investigate” upon making their decision not to charge Mueller-Owens.

A family member of the attacked student said “if [the] student was white the outcome of the decision would be different.”

Ozanne recounted his own experiences as a person of color living in Madison, calling the concern from the local community to be “understandable.” 

"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.” 

He declined to comment about whether he believes workplace rules were violated and whether or not Mueller-Owens should be disciplined by MMSD for his actions.

Dane County Superintendent Jennifer Cheathman wrote an open letter detailing her interest in pursuing an aggressive case against the allegations and acknowledging the schools districts’ failure to protect students of color from these ongoing abuses. 

Despite the district’s action –– which received criticism for its rhetoric and backlash for being announced over a week after the incident –– the police were not able to find enough clear evidence to take action. 

Students and their families, as well as school faculty, often attend and speak at board meetings, advocating for police to be taken out of schools and tangible racial justice reform. 

However, the incident reignited the passion in a board meeting last week, when students, parents, faculty and community members listed their concerns about racism in schools while board members discussed funding. 

Community members said they do not believe the board took necessary action against Mueller-Owens. 

“Somehow y’all forget the destruction and violation to children's bodies that’s taking place under your watch, and because it’s under your watch you’re accountable,” Brandi Grayson, a community activist, said at the meeting. “Enough is enough. We’re sick and tired of being tired.”

Based on the district attorney's decision, the school will now take into account "all available information from the police reports to understand every fact" and will take the necessary actions that follow, according to district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson. 

"Schools exist to nurture, uplift, and care for students. We must take every action to ensure that is true for every child," Strauch-Nelson said.

Gracie Wallner and Sydney Widell contributed to this report. 

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