How a teacher’s Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small Wisconsin town

In late August, during the second week of school in Burlington, Wisconsin, Melissa Statze was heard talking about Kenah with her fourth-grade children.

Some students had seen burning and bordered buildings in the nearby town, but did not know the details of the protests that police officer Jacob Blake, a black man, had shot. 23. A student asked Stetz, 30, if he knew what was going on in Kenosha, a half-hour drive from Burlington, a city of 11,000, 89 percent white.

Statz thought it might be a sad moment, so that week he used a children’s book, an educational video and a worksheet that led to a discussion on racism and why people were protesting. She considered the material neutral. The worksheet raised the question, “What is the Black Lives Matter movement trying to do?” And “How do we stop systemic racism?” She said the girls were engaged, and asked a lot of questions.

“One of the black girls in my class came to me and said, ‘Thank you very much for teaching our class about racism.” Staatz, who is white, said. Another black child – one of fewer than 50 black students in a district of more than 3,000 – hugged her after lessons, she said.

Later that night, a colleague asked Stetz to check out a private community Facebook group that had more than 40,000 members, who “sell and buy merchandise in Burlington, WI.” His stomach swelled.

A parent had posted photos of the used worksheet statze and slammed it as an attempt to “inspire our children”. Members of the like-minded community resented and demanded the School District Discipline stat.

At a heated school board meeting in September, arguments were made on social media, racial clashes erupted on Burlington’s school campuses and messages harassing Statze, alleging sowing division in small towns.

“People have just decided that if you support Black Lives Matter, you have to be a liberal,” Stetz said of the city’s residents, who supported 2 to 1 Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 . “Political party. I don’t know why. I think it’s a human rights issue.”

For Darren Haque / NBC News

Burlington echoes raised fears of clashes in schools and districts across the country in recent weeks as protests erupted in the country after George Floyd’s death, when mass racial justice protests first began And teachers brought the Black Latter Matter movement into the classroom.

In Florida, parents protested against the Sarasota County School Board’s decision last month to include Black Lives Matter in the district’s curriculum. A police union in Utah demanded in September that state officials condemn anti-law enforcement bias in schools, as an example of an elementary school teacher wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, which the union called a child ” Emotionally devastated “. A similar backlash has displayed signs supporting teachers in the Black Lives Matter movement, from school quiz questions in Kentucky and political cartoons taught in Texas classes to teachers in all states, often opposed by those parents Who insists that they want to keep politics out of the classroom.

“I don’t think it’s bad to talk about racial issues at school, but I oppose all the political profanity and partisan information about it,” said Adrienne Melby, a white Burlington mother active in local Facebook groups Is also mentioned. Protests against epidemic-related restrictions this year.

“Administrators are afraid that people are coming for them, and they are not wrong.”

Kathleen Osta, Managing Director of National Equity Project

The term “Black Lives Matter” has become a Rorschach test, which people see as political slogans inappropriate for the school, and who consider it a statement that is sure to make students of color feel safe and valued. Teachers say districts are facing these fights, as some teachers, parents and community leaders advocate for more explicit conversations about race, prejudice, and privilege in the classroom, while others, including White parents and police officers are involved, push back.

“Nobody has seen until 2020 – nobody knows what to educate it at the moment,” said Kathleen Osta, managing director of the National Equity Project, which helps school districts improve the racial climate on campuses. “There is a lot of division. Administrators are afraid that people are coming for them, and they are not wrong. But they have to be prepared to stand in some fire and take some heat. “

‘I need to fight for all children of color’

This is the first school year of Statz, who is teaching in her hometown.

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

In May, after the video of the fatal shooting of Ahmoud Erby, a 25-year-old black man in Georgia, went public, Stetz began searching for people in Burlington who were similarly concerned about racial justice. He discovered the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, a local activist group made the final start by Darnisha Garbade, a black mother who was frustrated with her family’s experience at school.

Garbed, 40, said that children repeatedly make disparaging remarks about their daughters about black people, especially their youngest, who is 12. More than two years old, Garbed said, white children gave up their daughter. Spit on, punched him and pushed him down the stairs. school. According to school documents, a boy threatened to kill her.

Garbed repeatedly reviewed by NBC News in an email to administrators to protect his daughter and do nothing. He believes the harassment was changing how his daughter behaved.

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

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