“Welcome 4k students! We’re so excited for you to come and join us at Ben Franklin,” says a chipper woman as she opens the doors to the Menomonee Falls School District elementary school, which houses grades 4k through second.
The virtual walkthrough, one of dozens of videos on the District’s YouTube page, is a testament to Menomonee Falls’ ability to market itself as a destination district which prides itself on being a beacon of academic achievement and a welcoming community.
“We are the home of the Statesmen,” the chipper woman continues, “where we practice being respectful, responsible, and safe.”
But for two former employees of Benjamin Franklin Elementary, it was anything but. There was no respect. There was no responsibility. And there certainly was no safety. Now, they are coming forward with shocking stories of physical and even sexual assault committed by shockingly young children.
Kina Stringfellow, a second-grade teacher at Franklin, and Corrine Braunreiter, a special education program support teacher for the Menomonee Falls District assigned to the school, both had to leave early this school year after they were victimized five-year-old and seven-year-old students.
Corrine even alleges that one incident this past September amounted to sexual assault.
“As part of my role, I am supposed to coach all of the special education teams,” she recalls. “I was in one school, Ben Franklin Elementary, where they had a disproportionate amount of behavioral issues—very physical behaviors. I was there helping, and the student I was helping was regular education. That’s not really my purview; I’m paid through special education funds, but I did what the district office told me to do.
“I was helping there, and the behaviors were very physical and did get sexual at one point when we were transporting the student. He did reach out and grab me in my private area.”
The student was just five years old, but he had been repeatedly grabbing the private areas of girls in his classroom for much of the early part of the school year.
“At this point when this happened, it had been at least two weeks of responding to this student being physical all day long,” she explains. “I would go home with bruises up and down my legs, up and down my arms. That’s how physical the days were.”
But now she had been violated, and the trauma from the assault left her physically ill. She began showing symptoms of both anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and with each passing day, they grew worse.
She knew that the student, who was just a kindergartener, didn’t fully understand the deep physical and emotional harm he had caused her and his fellow classmates by groping them, but she still felt victimized—especially after the Menomonee Falls School District refused to take her assault seriously or even discipline the student.
Kina had a sadly similar experience.
“I had a special needs student in my class and they were prone to physical violence, verbal violence, trashing classrooms,” she says, “and they directed this violence at students and adults.”
Including her. During one particularly violent outburst, the student—a second-grader—repeatedly slammed Kina with a door and then stabbed her in the leg with a pencil.
“The student slammed a door on me repeatedly because they didn’t want to enter the room to take a math test,” she explains. “The door hit me across my face and torso. They were on the outside of the classroom door and I was in the door jamb and the door was being, like, slam! Slam! Slammed!
“So I placed my foot against the inside of the door and my left hand high on the outside of the door to both push and pull on the door so that the student couldn’t do that to me anymore. The student wanted me to get off of the door and saw that I had my left hand, on which I wear my wedding ring, on the outside of the door, and they started attacking my hand to try to get my jewelry off because I’m pretty sure that would make me lose my grip on the door and then they could slam it on me again.”
Kina was able to get the student calmed down, but later in the day, he became disruptive again, and Kina was forced to stop teaching and intervene. To get a rise out of other children, the student began making loud noises and opening and closing his desk, causing it to squeak loudly.
“So between the noises that the student was making and the noises of the squeaky hinges, the kids were just losing their stuff,” she says. “The student stopped doing that for a second and kind of sat back away from their desk and their chair. I seized the opportunity, grabbed the desk, pulled it away from the student and toward myself and they started to flailing to grab the desk back.
“They managed to snag a couple pencils that were in the front. I ended up sitting on the desk because the student wanted to play tug-of-war with me and realized he couldn’t move the desk with me sitting on it. So then he realized that with the tools he had in his hands, he could stab me repeatedly in the legs while I was sitting on the desk.”
Kina had been teaching second and fifth grade for more than 20 years, and while she thought she had seen it all, this was the first time she had ever been so violently assaulted. Worse, she claims that the District refused to take her complaint seriously, provide her with classroom support, or discipline the student in any way.
Unsure of what to do and finding herself increasingly unable to continue, Kina left Ben Franklin and the teaching profession just three weeks into the school year.
Corrine tried to continue with her career, but alleges that the District made that impossible and even retaliated against her for wanting to report her assault as a major disciplinary incident.
“I’m a district seclusion and restraint trainer, and in my role as a district [special education] coach, I also support these situations so I was responding to an incident where we did have to transport a student who was acting out. In the middle of transporting him, he did reach over and grab my vagina.
“At that time, I was transporting him with the school principal. Our protocol is to fill out a major [incident report]. I was told not to do that and just call human resources directly.”
This sort of incident, Corrine was told, was to be handled “off the books,” but why?
“There was no direct reason given,” she claims. “The student in question was regular education and we were implementing some special ed strategies with him—kind of ‘off the books special education’ was happening—so we were using a functional behavior assessment plan where we were trying to look at trends in the data.
“But that can be done as well through the official system that gets reported to the [Wisconsin] Department of Public Instruction. That information is part of our overall district report card so it should be reported.”
But it wasn’t, because Corrine was explicitly instructed not to use the District’s system for reporting disciplinary and behavioral issues. Although there was never an explicit reason given, Corrine says that her time at District office made it clear: the student in question was black, and the District had adopted an unwritten but strictly enforced policy of keeping disciplinary and special education numbers of minority students down.
“I know that the school had disproportionate numbers of students with behavioral issues,” she explains. “We were identified as being disproportionate with students in specific demographics. African American students for instance were identified as being disproportionate in special education. We were trying to I guess be preemptive and support the student with these behaviors before they would be evaluated from special ed, but these behaviors should have triggered evaluation for special education.”
They didn’t, and the student who sexually assaulted Corrine and several young girls in his class was never evaluated for placement in special education or punished in any way. In fact, he was back in the classroom the next day. So too was the student who attacked Kina.
They are both alleging the direct violation of the Menomonee Falls School District Code of Conduct, under which “physical assault on a District employee by a student is strictly forbidden.”
“Physical assault on a District employee by a student will result in an immediate three (3) day suspension from school,” the code reads. “At the time of the suspension the principal/designee shall contact the parents of the student to discuss the situation and determine next steps. Physical assault on a District employee may result in expulsion and a referral to the police department.”
The Menomonee Falls School District and Superintendent Corey Golla did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, specifically why the District violated its own policy in refusing to discipline the students who assaulted Corrine and Kina.
Since it quickly became clear that neither student would be removed from the classroom or face any discipline whatsoever, Kina and Corrine repeatedly asked the district and school for support in dealing with their extreme behaviors, but were repeatedly rebuffed.
“I was asking for behavior plans, I was asking for strategies that had been used in previous years,” she remembers. “ This wasn’t the student’s first year in the building. He had been in the Ben Franklin building since 4k. In 4k the student was disruptive. In 5k the student was disruptive. In first grade the student was disruptive.
“They had three years of history on this child and nothing had been presented to me—not an IEP [individualized education plan] snapshot, not a behavior plan, not a set of strategies that work or don’t work, no prior recorded information from all of the many events in which this student trashed classro oms and hit kids and beat up teachers—nothing! There was no paperwork, there was no verbal information that I was being given by administration.”
Corrine alleges that when she reported her assault and pressed the school for more answers about why nothing was being done to help the student or protect those around him, she began to face retaliation for speaking out.
“I was told that I do not support the district’s policy, I was told that it was my job to go research this and to figure out what the policy is, and then when I asked, ‘What are my options? What can we do? Can we find an alternative placement or put him in another school? What are my options? I’d like to do this plan, but I don’t know what my options are. There are legal ramifications here.’
“The answer was, ‘Well if you write the plan, then you’ll be the one who gets sued.’ Those were the things that were said in this initial meeting where I said, ‘Can we all just come together and collaborate to support this student?’
“They kept asking ‘Are you putting plans in place? Where are the plans?’ When they’re asking for that, they’re asking for an FBA—a functional behavioral assessment, which is part of a special education program. There would be no plan for this student because he is regular ed.
“So they directed me to go work in other schools and remove myself from the situation because I’m obviously too emotional about it. That was their view of the situation, that I just needed to be removed. So I did; I went and worked in other schools.”
But when she did, she was subjected to what she described as hostile weekly performance review meetings with the District’s director of pupil services.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do. I can’t work with you. You don’t support our philosophy. You’re going to have to go back to being a teacher in another building.’”
As the stress of this mounted, Corrine’s anxiety and PTSD got worse—so bad in fact that she found herself unable to even enter the school building to which she was assigned. She couldn’t handle it anymore. She was breaking down.
And to make matters worse, she was forced to return to Ben Franklin.
“I was told to report back to B.F. at the beginning of December,” she says. “When I got there, two kids were locked naked in a room fighting. The director had been there, noticed it, and just left. I worked with a teacher to make a plan. That night the director sent me an email saying it was my job to fix this and that I needed to go in and fix this after I had been gone for so long.”
That was the last straw. Corrine knew she couldn’t continue, and applied for time off through the Family Medical Leave Act to treat herself, hoping to return to school during the second semester. But the District, in what Corrine claims was clear retaliation, determined that she turned in her paperwork late and fired her.
She has now initiated a lawsuit against the Menomonee Falls School District and is speaking out in the hopes that things will change. Both she and Kina say a number of other teachers have contacted them with similar stories of violent abuse by extremely young students, but are not coming forward out of fear of retaliation similar to that Corrine faced.
Kina’s resignation was accepted without a requirement that she pay a penalty for breaching her contract, which she takes as a tacit admission by the District that she was the victim of its refusal to enforce its own disciplinary policies.
“You’d think that with Menomonee Falls being a school district that prides itself on continuous improvement and a systems approach, the special ed factor in Menomonee Falls has been wanting for at least a decade,” Kina says. “They are understaffed as far as teachers go and it’s not the fault of the teachers and it’s not the fault of the kids. Teachers are doing everything they can, kids are doing what they can with the support that they’re being given, so in my mind it falls on administration to provide more people and to provide those people with policies or strategies or something is actually doing a child some service.”
Instead, the District has maintained a conspiracy of silence surrounding these issues, but it appears that those involved are looking to escape. Superintendent Golla applied for a position as Superintendent of the Franklin School District, but failed to get the job. It is believed that he will soon leave Menomonee Falls for another job.
The Director of Pupil Services, who Corrine claims retaliated against her, is leaving the District in July to take a similar job in another school district. Menomonee Falls’ Director of Curriculum and Learning is leaving for a position in the private sector.
Corrine believes that while this turnover can represent a fresh start for the Menomonee Falls School District, nothing will change until the District’s culture changes.
“There are a lot of different philosophies on how you can educate kids and how you can respond to behavior,” she says. “But the situation here is dire. There are people who are getting hurt daily. It’s impacting learning for students. And ultimately what I really want to see is honesty and transparency so that everybody knows what’s going on, all the ideas can come to the table, and everybody can work together to make sure that students get what they need and are promised.”