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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Following Controversy Over BLM Lesson, Burlington School Board OKs Anti-Racism Policy

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Emily Files
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WUWM
Darnisha Garbade speaks at a Nov. 30 rally calling on the Burlington school district to adopt a strong anti-racist policy and take other steps to support students of color.

Updated 3:51 p.m.

The predominately white Burlington Area School District, about 30 miles west of Racine, has been grappling with how to address — and teach children about — racism.

On Monday night, the school board adopted an anti-racism policy. But the people who were advocating for such a policy say it’s not enough.

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The Burlington School District is 80% white, 14% Hispanic and a little more than 1% Black.

Darnisha Garbade says she’s been pushing the district to do better for students of color for years. She said it started with the way her now 12-year-old daughter, who is Black, was treated in school.

“My youngest daughter has been spit on, she’s been pushed down the stairs, she’s been called the n-word, racist jokes have been told about her,” Garbade says. “And the district has taken a complacent stance against racism."

The ACLU of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the Department of Public Instruction last week on Garbade's behalf, accusing the Burlington district of improperly handling her complaint of racial harassment and discrimination.

Burlington has also struggled with how to tackle the subject of racism in the classroom.

The school district was the center of a controversy in August, when fourth grade teacher Melissa Statz talked about the Black Lives Matter movement with her students. Statz says, the students were asking about Kenosha, where Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by police.

“We went outside, sat in a circle and talked about what racism looks like, how it still exists,” Statz says. “Some kids shared experiences that they personally had. And then we turned to the current climate in our county, and the social unrest, and what they had been seeing for the last few months.”

Some in the Burlington community were outraged by the lesson, saying the Black Lives Matter organization is too political or leftist to have a place in the classroom.

The school district initially took a neutral stance. But after pushback, Superintendent Stephen Plank released a statement clarifying that the district rejects racism.

"Upon significant reflection, I see how my perspective was offensive and understand that there is no neutrality when pursuing equity," Plank wrote. "[We are] attempting to address systemic racism in ways that haven't been done in the BASD before."

Plank declined to be interviewed for this report.

Darnisha Garbade, whose Black daughter was taunted in school, formed an advocacy group called the Burlington Coalition For Dismantling Racism. Statz is also part of the group.

In early 2020, it met with the school district about establishing an anti-racism policy. But Garbade says, the superintendent and school board have not involved coalition members in the process of drafting a final proposal. 

“Burlington is a monoethnic town. You have 97% white people. In order to truly see equity and change, you have to invite people of color to the table to make these decisions,” Garbade says. “And that’s what you don’t see happening.”

On Monday, the coalition, along with area faith leaders, held a prayer vigil calling on the school district to take stronger action against racism.

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Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Faith leaders participated in a rally at Echo Park in Burlington to call on the school board to adopt a strong anti-racism policy.

The group then protested at the homes of school board members, who were meeting virtually that night. During the virtual meeting, the board unanimously passed an anti-racism policy that Garbade’s group argues is insufficient.

The policy tacks on a paragraph condemning racism to an anti-harassment policy. Board members said it was just the beginning of their work.

“The anti-harassment/anti-racism policy of the Burlington School District is an acknowledgement that racism will not be allowed in our schools,” said board member Diane Wood. “The next step will be the creation of clear and strong administrative guidelines to support this policy.”

Board member Peter Turke specifically thanked Garbade for sharing her family’s experience with racism in Burlington schools. He said the board is listening.

But the words of reassurance are too late for Garbade. Her family is leaving Burlington.

“I feel like we’re not safe here,” Garbade says. “There’s been threats. And to live in enemy territory when you’re in a war against racism, it’s just not wise to do.”

Garbade already withdrew her two school-aged children from the Burlington district this year. They’re now attending Kenosha schools, where she says they feel better supported.

Statz, the fourth grade teacher, plans to stay in the district and push for leaders to follow through on promises of anti-racist curriculum and staff training. She says she’ll continue to talk about racism with her students.

“I feel like my voice is needed here,” Statz says.

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