The Kenosha Unified School District is under fire for what the American Civil Liberties Union calls an environment of pervasive gender discrimination.
The ACLU is asking the district to take more aggressive action in response to two eye-popping incidents that occurred in 2018. It is also demanding the district act to change a school culture “in which female students are objectified and sexualized.”
The first incident happened in March at a Tremper High School cheerleading awards ceremony. A female coach gave cheerleaders gag awards emphasizing their body parts. There was a "Big Boobie" award, a "Big Booty" award, and a "String Bean" award.
ACLU attorney Asma Kadri Keeler says these were “expressly body-shaming awards.”
Parents complained and the coach apologized. A human resources official asked the coach to resign, but she did not, and Tremper’s principal didn’t force her to leave. Instead, he allegedly told parents that the awards were meant to be funny.
A Kenosha School District spokesperson says the cheerleading team has been instructed to stop giving out such awards and that an investigation is ongoing.
That’s not the only incident the ACLU is asking the district to answer for.
A few months ago, students in a Bradford High School health class watched a movie in which a female college student is raped. The students were then asked how the woman could have prevented her own assault.
The assignment read: “What could have Melissa done differently to have avoided her sexual assault (provide at least 4 examples)?”
The Kenosha district said that assignment was immediately removed and it is reviewing its health curriculum.
But the ACLU says promises of investigations and reviews are not enough. Kadri Keeler says the district should have taken more aggressive action last year, when her organization called out the district for its dress code. The ACLU accused the school district of unfairly enforcing its dress code in a way that body-shamed female students for wearing leggings and tank tops.
The district changed the dress code, but Kadri Keeler says officials didn’t take more substantive action, like implementing anti-harassment training for staff or strengthening policies around harassment and discrimination.
Nan Stein, a Wellesley College research scientist who studies sexual harassment in schools, says incidents like those in Kenosha can create lasting damage.
“This doesn’t stay confined to the room,” Stein said. “The message travels and other kids pick it up. So, it’s the lesson that this conveys that lingers.”
Kadri Keeler of the ACLU says one of the most disturbing parts of the "Big Boobie" and "Big Booty" cheerleading awards was that for some students, it didn’t even register as inappropriate.
“I think the most troubling report we got was from a cheerleader who was at the banquet,” Kadri Keeler said. “[She] said the girls didn’t come forward after this happened because they think it’s normal. This is something they are so exposed to and used to that they don’t think it was wrong.”
The ACLU is threatening legal action if the district doesn’t commit to corrective steps like disciplining the staff involved in the incidents and instituting anti-harassment training. It has given the Kenosha district until March 1 to respond to its demands.
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