Residents of Wisconsin town near Kenosha in uproar over teacher's racism lesson

Tyler Kingkade
·17 min read

In late August, during the second week of school in Burlington, Wisconsin, Melissa Statz heard children in her fourth grade class talking about Kenosha.

A couple of students had seen burned and boarded-up buildings in the nearby city, but they didn’t know the details of the protests that filled the streets after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back on Aug. 23. One student asked Statz, 30, if she knew what was going on in Kenosha, which is a half-hour drive from Burlington, a town of 11,000 that is 89 percent white.

Statz thought this could be a teachable moment, so that week she used a children’s book, an educational video and a worksheet to lead a discussion on racism and why people were protesting. She considered the materials neutral. The worksheet posed questions like, “What is the Black Lives Matter Movement trying to do?” and “How Do We Stop Systemic Racism?” The students seemed engaged, and asked a lot of questions, she said.

“One of the Black girls in my class came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for teaching our class about racism,’” Statz, who is white, said. Another Black child — one of fewer than 50 Black students in a district of more than 3,000 — gave her a hug after the lesson, she said.

Later that night, a colleague told Statz to look at a private community Facebook group with more than 40,000 members called “Burlington, WI, buy sell & trade.” Her stomach dropped.

A parent had posted photos of the worksheet Statz used and slammed it as an attempt to “indoctrinate our kids.” Like-minded community members were outraged and demanded that the school district discipline Statz.

The arguments on social media spilled into a heated school board meeting in September, racial slurs were graffitied on Burlington’s school campuses and a deluge of harassing messages were directed at Statz accusing her of sowing division in the small town.

“People have just decided if you support Black Lives Matter, you must be a liberal,” Statz said of the town’s residents, who supported Donald Trump 2-to-1 over Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Somehow people have associated those words with a political party. I don’t know why. I think it’s a human rights issue.”

Image: How one teacher's Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
Image: How one teacher's Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)

The uproar in Burlington echoes conflicts in schools and districts nationwide in recent weeks as classes resumed for the first time after massive racial justice protests swept the country following George Floyd’s death, and teachers brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the classroom.

In Florida, parents protested last month against the Sarasota County School Board's decision to include Black Lives Matter in the district’s curriculum. A police union in Utah demanded in September that state officials denounce anti-law enforcement bias in schools, citing an elementary school teacher wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt as an example, which the union said left a child “emotionally devastated.” Similar backlash has cropped up over everything from school quiz questions in Kentucky and political cartoons discussed in a Texas class, to educators in many states displaying signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, often opposed by parents who insist they want politics excluded from the classroom.

“I don’t think it’s bad to be talking about racial issues in school, but the whole political slant to it and biased information is what I oppose,” said Adrianne Melby, a white Burlington mother active in local Facebook groups, who also organized protests against pandemic-related restrictions this year.

The words “Black Lives Matter” have become a Rorschach test, splitting people who see it as a political slogan inappropriate for school, and those who consider it a statement vital to ensuring students of color feel safe and valued. Educators say that districts are going to have to face these quarrels head on, as some teachers, parents and community leaders advocate for a more frank conversation about race, bias and privilege in the classroom, while others, including white parents and police unions, push back.

“No one has seen 2020 — no one knows what it’s like to educate at this moment,” said Kathleen Osta, managing director of the National Equity Project, which helps school districts improve the racial climate on campuses. “There's so much divisiveness. Administrators are afraid people are going to come for them, and they're not wrong. But they have to be willing to stand in some fire and take some heat.”

'I need to fight for all children of color'

This is Statz’s first school year teaching in her hometown.

She graduated from the town’s only high school in 2008, attended Northeastern University in Boston, then taught for two years at a charter school in Chicago. After moving to Burlington with her husband and staying home for two years with her kids, ages 4 and 1, she took a job in town as a fourth grade teacher at Cooper Elementary School.

In May, after video of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man in Georgia, became public, Statz began looking for people in Burlington who were similarly concerned about racial justice. She discovered the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, a local activist group started last fall by Darnisha Garbade, a Black mother who was frustrated with her own family’s experience at school.

Garbade, 40, said children repeatedly made derogatory remarks about Black people to her daughters, particularly her youngest, who is 12. Over the past two years, Garbade said, white children spit at her daughter, punched her and pushed her down the stairs at school. One boy threatened to kill her, according to school documents.

Garbade repeatedly chastised administrators in emails, reviewed by NBC News, for not doing more to protect her daughter. She believes the harassment was changing how her daughter behaved.

“I could see the hurt in her eyes, and I told her I didn’t want her to allow them to determine her character,” Garbade said.

Darnisha Garbade started the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism. (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
Darnisha Garbade started the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism. (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)

An attorney hired by the district to review Garbade’s concerns concluded that the harassment and school responses had nothing to do with race, and that school officials acted reasonably. The state Department of Public Instruction is reviewing a complaint from Garbade to look into any potential racial bias.

“When situations like this arise, we take it seriously as we want all students to feel safe and free from harassment in school,” Julie Thomas, the district’s communication coordinator, said in a statement.

Garbade began going to school board meetings to speak, and talking to other people in town about what she felt the school district could do better to address racism. Several people joined the cause, and they started to call themselves the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism.

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“We would just come and take our three minutes at the meetings, and we were still dissatisfied,” said Tammie Ketelsen, who along with her husband, Levi, a pastor, both white, joined Garbade. “Nobody has ever apologized to this family for what they’ve walked through. We thought maybe we need to put a name to what we’re doing and ask other people to partner with us.”

The coalition pointed to concerns extending beyond Garbade’s family.

While the district reported zero cases of racial discrimination to the state from fall 2016 to spring 2019, it documented 21 incidents of bullying based on race during the same period in reports to the school board, records show. District data also show Black students were disciplined at a rate nearly five times higher than their white peers.

“It went from I need to stay in this for my children, to, I need to fight for all children of color,” Garbade said.

In a July letter responding to the coalition’s concerns, the district denied that children of color were being called racial slurs at school, and instead said there are “student-to-student microaggressions that may or may not be intended as racist but inflict harm.” The district promised to review its policies and curriculum for potential improvements and to consider a “more restorative approach to student discipline.”

Why so many teachers support Black Lives Matter

David Stovall, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the intersection of race and school, has termed the reluctance to face racism in one’s own community as “fear of the self-indictment.”

“You may have never owned slaves, you may have never uttered a racial epithet,” said Stovall, who is Black, “but you live in a world that assumes my criminality over my humanity, and that I think is the toughest thing for people to grapple with.”

In the case of a Black child being picked on at a largely white school, “it’s cognitive dissonance if I say that’s not about race,” Stovall said.

Image: How one teacher?EUR(TM)s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
Image: How one teacher?EUR(TM)s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)

Polling shows around 45 to 49 percent of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, but the rate is much higher among teachers. An EdWeek Research Center survey in June found the vast majority of educators, 81 percent, supported Black Lives Matter, and only 16 percent were unwilling to teach or support an anti-racist curriculum.

“Racism still does exist in our society and educators are aware of that,” said Kim Anderson, the first woman of color to serve as executive director of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. “They see it every day in the systems that impact education, they see it in inequitable funding, which students have resources, stories that students bring inside the classroom, and we take that seriously.”

In Burlington, the Coalition for Dismantling Racism organized several rallies and protests this summer drawing attention to racial justice in schools. In one event, a dozen people stood outside of Burlington’s City Hall, a simple two-story corner brick building, chanting “Black education matters!”

Statz began attending protests and drafted a petition in June to add more Black history and diverse perspectives into the school curriculum. She also started thinking about how she might be able to incorporate racial equity lessons into her teaching.

“Our kids are already experiencing racism,” she said. “Our Black and brown students are dealing with it on a daily basis. If they’re old enough to experience it, then the rest of them are old enough to learn about it.”

She just didn’t plan that the lesson would happen so early in the year.

Facebook fuels a backlash

Jim Crawley, 60, was the first to post about Statz’s lesson in the “Burlington, WI, Buy sell & trade” group on Aug. 27. He said another parent shared the worksheet with him, knowing that Crawley, whose daughter is in first grade, was already concerned about Black Lives Matter being taught in class. He considers it a Marxist organization.

“You can’t even go out to eat dinner without them trying to get you on your knees,” Crawley, who is white, said. “What it is is reversed racism — they’re trying to strong-arm you to believe their beliefs. I have no problem with Black people being equal to what we are. I do have a problem with people trying to force others to believe what they believe.”

Images of the worksheet quickly spread online, including in a private group for Wisconsinites angry about Covid-19 restrictions and mandates. “Teacher needs a beat down,” one person commented. Another encouraged people to tell Statz to move to a city like Milwaukee or Chicago that would be more receptive to learning about Black Lives Matter. Others said they needed to call the school board to complain.

Taylor M. Wishau, a Burlington school board member, commented on a post about the lesson plan that he was “irate.” The teacher “went rogue and will be dealt with,” he wrote. (Wishau did not respond to emailed questions; he appeared to delete his Facebook account after NBC News contacted him.)

Several parents, including Crawley, were upset that the worksheet stated that George Floyd was killed by a police officer (a medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, and the officer who placed a knee on his neck is facing a second-degree murder charge). “We all agree it looked horrible, but this hasn’t played out in the courts,” Crawley said.

Burlington’s school superintendent, Stephen Plank, initially took a neutral stance on Statz’s lesson. In an Aug. 30 letter to parents, he called the lesson “an individual decision, not part of the approved curriculum,” and added that if parents want clarification about what their children are learning in school, they are welcome to call their children’s teacher.

Statz said only one parent called her with concerns, and after she explained the goals of the lesson, they are now on good terms.

Meanwhile on social media, rumors swirled that Statz had told students that all police are bad and that their parents were wrong to say “all lives matter” — things she said she would never say. People also wrote that Statz was fired from her last teaching job in Chicago — an allegation that concerned Statz so much that she asked her former boss to write a letter, reviewed by NBC News, denying the rumor.

Dozens of parents in Burlington joined a private Facebook group called “Parents Against Rogue Teachers.” Melby, an administrator of the group, said parents angry about the lesson were not against racial equality — they were upset the lesson plan was not part of the authorized curriculum, and their anxiety had been heightened by a deadly shooting during protests in Kenosha that week.

Image: How one teacher?EUR(TM)s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
Image: How one teacher?EUR(TM)s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)

“Burlington is generally a pretty safe city,” Melby said. “People were concerned about that sort of stuff coming to the area.”

As people spoke for and against Statz’s lesson on Facebook, residents of the Southeastern Wisconsin town felt like the dividing lines had been drawn.

A heated school board meeting

The showdown came at a Sep. 14 school board meeting.

Around 200 community members packed into the bleachers of a gymnasium and spent two hours speaking for and against the lesson plan. Some defended Statz for creating an environment in which her students feel free to ask difficult questions. Others called on the school board to fire her, saying she had pushed an agenda on fourth graders and violated district policy.

At the end of the meeting, a board member read a short statement to the audience, acknowledging “this is a highly charged and emotional topic.” Then, without using Statz’s name, the board said that she wasn’t going to be fired over the “one-time use of curricular materials.” The issue was a “personnel matter” and was addressed internally, the board said. (Statz said her principal and the superintendent had a conversation with her after complaints surfaced, but that she was not disciplined.)

A man in a Trump shirt criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement at Sept. 14 school board meeting in Burlington, Wis. (Mike Ramczyk via SLN Racine County)
A man in a Trump shirt criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement at Sept. 14 school board meeting in Burlington, Wis. (Mike Ramczyk via SLN Racine County)

Many people left the meeting disappointed. Those who wanted Statz fired believed the school board was yielding to Black Lives Matter protesters. Statz’s defenders said the board should have more clearly defended her and lessons tackling racism.

“Our nation is still divided by issues of race but the impression being communicated to our students that we can’t talk about it is toxic in my mind,” said Nicole Fish, 27, a white teacher who lives in Burlington and works in Kenosha. “Burlington is a microcosm of things happening in the Midwest in general, and our country at large.”

No one from the school board or district would agree to an interview. Thomas, the district’s communication coordinator, said the administration wanted to “focus attention on solving the problem” rather than perpetuating the debate and stirring up “mixed emotions in the community.”

“What we’re experiencing in the Burlington community represents what is being experienced in communities across America,” Thomas said. “There are many sides and perspectives to understand and it takes time and dedication to seek community-wide reconciliation. The Burlington Area School District is committed to that process.”

'There is no neutrality when pursuing equity'

The school board meeting did little to calm emotions in the town. Statz, Garbade and other members of the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism said they faced more harassment online.

“You’ve started this s--- in my city… mostly everyone will fight you,” one woman told Garbade on Facebook. Screenshots of several messages sent to Statz show men called her a “piece of human garbage” and a “piss poor excuse of a teacher”; one told her, “You brought this on yourself,” while also commenting on her “nice little family.”

The backlash continued offline as well. Statz said friends stopped inviting her to neighborhood get-togethers. Ketelsen said some people stopped attending her husband’s church.

“I feel like for the most part, people have made their minds up about racism and equity and those kinds of things long before this stuff even started coming out and being exposed,” Garbade said. “So it’s very hard to have conversations.”

Then, three days after the school board meeting, according to the district, a group of students etched “die [n-word] die” and “down with BLM” into wood chips at Cooper Elementary School, where Statz teaches.

Image: How one teacher?EUR(TM)s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
Image: How one teacher?EUR(TM)s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)

The following day, Sept. 18, Superintendent Plank issued an open letter in response. He apologized for the district previously declaring neutrality on the Black Lives Matter lesson plan.

“I see how my perspective was offensive and understand that there is no neutrality when pursuing equity,” Plank said in the letter. “The fact that we even need to specifically say that Black Lives Matter to affirm the importance of human beings is to say that we as a nation have not done a good job of regarding Black and brown people as valuable members of our society historically or currently.”

He acknowledged the district received “a wave of polarized feedback, some of it espousing racist, hateful, and threatening sentiments,” and said the attacks against school staff and community members must stop.

Two weeks later, a group of minors spray painted the n-word on the floor of another school that was under construction.

Burlington police would not release reports on the incidents, citing confidentiality for cases that are ongoing and involve juveniles, but told NBC News that the vandals stated what they did was “dumb” and “stupid.”

Even before the vandalism, Garbade decided to pull her children out of Burlington schools and enroll them in Kenosha’s district. “Looking at the recent hate crimes in Burlington,” she said, “it seems like it was a very wise choice.” However, she plans to continue pushing the Burlington district to adopt an anti-racism policy, expand the curriculum to include Black history lessons and address racial disparities in discipline.

“I realized that somebody needed to bring awareness to Burlington and what was happening here, and to challenge the people of Burlington to rise up and be better,” Garbade said.

The hate mail to Statz has recently slowed. She felt things calmed down once the school administration issued more forceful public statements supporting her and denouncing racism.

Statz hasn’t taught another lesson about the Black Lives Matter protests, though she doesn’t think she did anything wrong. Next time, she thinks she would send an email to parents in advance of a lesson to get ahead of what circulated on social media.

Over the past two months, there were moments she felt overwhelmed, but she said there’s one thing that friends from Chicago have reminded her that made this experience easier.

“If I was teaching this in Chicago, it wouldn’t be making the same impact as it does here,” she said.