Wauwatosa school district pressured after classroom discussions of ongoing lawsuits

Mayor and district in tug-o-war over whether the city’s controversies may be discussed in school

By: - April 5, 2022 6:15 am
Protesters march toward Wauwatosa as the curfew sets in. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Protesters march toward Wauwatosa in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The question of what topics should and should not be discussed in the classroom is a political flash point. But while Wauwatosa’s school district says it hasn’t grappled with debates about so-called critical race theory, or discussions of gender and sexuality in class, one topic has generated complaints. That’s the discussion of the protests for police reform that occurred nearly two years ago, and the numerous legal actions and revelations that followed.

In December, a presentation during a Law in Society class at Wauwatosa East High School featured attorney Kimberley Motley discussing her work as an international civil rights attorney. Motley has spearheaded several legal actions involving local members of the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted in 2020. Wauwatosa was the site of many days of sustained protests, initially focused around a trio of fatal shootings by a single Wauwatosa police officer. Motley’s Wauwatosa lawsuits revolve around those three shootings, the city’s curfew declarations, as well as the surveillance and enforcement tactics utilized by officers during the protests.

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride in his office. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride in his office. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

For her visit to the East High School law class, Motley created a 59-slide Powerpoint presentation covering her work in Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cuba and elsewhere around the globe. Only the 16 slides that involved the Wauwatosa shootings and lawsuits drew the ire of some city officials. One slide features the faces of Antonio Gonzales, Jay Anderson Jr., and Alvin Cole, all of whom were killed by former officer Joseph Mensah within a five year period. The slide also shows a slogan from that summer of protest “#JusticeForTheeThree.” Other slides referenced some of the pending lawsuits by case number, WPD arrest data, and the probable cause for charges against Mensah which arose out of the ongoing John Doe proceedings. Some of the slides featured pictures of archived news coverage of racist Martin Luther King Day parties held by Wauwatosa officers in the 1990’s.

Local officials criticized the presentation, calling it biased. The slides, for instance, don’t mention that Mensah was cleared of the shootings by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, or that police stated all three young people who were shot were armed. Motley told Wisconsin Examiner that the Powerpoint was used as a bare bones guide for the presentation. She added that she talked about  the cases in more detail in her oral remarks. “You don’t put things on Powerpoint and read it to people,” she said. “That’s not the nature of public speaking.”

WPD spokesperson Sergeant Abby Pavlik laid out the department’s concerns. “Attorney Motley is an attorney with a wide range of experiences,” Pavlik told Wisconsin Examiner. “The students at Wauwatosa East hopefully gleaned some knowledge and legal perspectives from her areas of expertise related to international civil rights law. The department’s concern was related to the discussion of ongoing legal proceedings with the city of Wauwatosa and the Wauwatosa Police Department.”

Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approached in October, 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Among the most vocal critics of Motley’s presentation was Mayor Dennis McBride, who told Wisconsin Examiner he had no comment beyond the criticisms he has already made. “I do not wish to re-open sensitive discussions I had with school officials,” said McBride. “My emails should answer most of your questions. I have no further comment.” Wisconsin Examiner obtained McBride’s emails to the district via open records requests. Upon learning of Motley’s presentation, McBride expressed his frustrations to Superintendent Desmond Means and East High School principal Nick Hughes.

“2020 and 2021 have been difficult years in Wauwatosa,” McBride emailed the pair. “Protests and counter-protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting of Alvin Cole by a Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) officer — and the lawsuits resulting from the Cole shooting and the protests — created extreme divisions in our community,” he continued. “From early 2020 to the present, city officials have been working diligently every day to heal those divisions. The process has been long and painful.”

Referencing Motley’s presentation, McBride relayed his fears that “recent actions taken by the Wauwatosa School District and Tosa East now threaten to exacerbate the divisions. To say that I am shocked and appalled by the attached Facebook post would be an extreme understatement.” The post, made to the school district’s Facebook page, acknowledged Motley’s guest speaker appearence. At the time the post was made, Motley’s presentation was a week old. It highlighted Motley as “the only foreign lawyer licensed to litigate in Afghanistan’s courts,” and noted her ongoing lawsuits in Wauwatosa and Kenosha. “We are so fortunate to have attorney Motley speak to our school and share her insights and experiences,” it read.

Lawyer Kimberley Motley speaks to press outside Wauwatosa City Hall after the meeting was over. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Lawyer Kimberly Motley speaks to press outside Wauwatosa City Hall after the meeting was over. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

McBride lambasted the post. “To mention Kimberley Motley’s role in suing the City of Wauwatosa and the WPD in a school-sponsored Facebook post in a favorable light is outrageous and certainly does not create confidence in me or anyone else in city government that the school district is a true partner with the city and the police who protect our schools. Your actions can only undermine the careful work we’ve done over the past decade to form a good working relationship with the school district. They also will divide taxpayers who do not want the school district to take positions that appear to be political.” The mayor noted that he had no issue with Motley speaking about her other work. McBride, however, strongly objected to the district “advertising her appearance in a way that seems to take her side” in the ongoing lawsuits against the police and city. “I will object even more strongly if I learn that she spoke to students in any way about those lawsuits.”

McBride concluded his first email requesting that “you change your policy about who speaks to your classes and what they speak about.” He also asked for the Facebook post to either be deleted or edited to not seem favorable to Motley. Additionally, the mayor said he wanted to give his own presentation to the class alongside Police Chief James MacGillis  “to present the other side.” The following day on Dec. 15 WPD’s union, the Wauwatosa Peace Officers Association, having obtained Motley’s Powerpoint, sent it to MacGillis. The same day, McBride emailed the district regarding the presentation, “FYI, this is unacceptable.”

               The power point slides that mentioned Wauwatosa

Tosa

 

Superintendent Means apologized to the mayor. “In no way is the Facebook post intended to refer to the pending legal action related to the Wauwatosa Police Department/City of Wauwatosa and Ms. Motley. We were careful in not mentioning the City of Wauwatosa in the post.” Welcoming McBride and MacGillis to speak with the students, Means added that both the principal and he “are former social studies teachers and we are so pleased that our city leaders are willing to offer their time to the students of Wauwatosa.”

McBride thanked Means for the apology, but went on to say that he, WPD and others in the community were “offended” by Motley’s visit. McBride told the district Motley “should not have been allowed to speak to students about those topics.” The mayor then reiterated his demands to delete the Facebook post, and alluded to pending discussions with school board members about “outside speakers.” Means thanked the mayor for “the constructive feedback,” adding, “please allow me to work with our team internally.” Sarah Frittitta, the school district’s communications coordinator, told Wisconsin Examiner that in truth, “the City of Wauwatosa and the Mayor’s Office has no jurisdiction as it pertains to the governance or management of the Wauwatosa School District.”

Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Desmond Means. (Photo
Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Desmond Means. (Photo | Wauwatosa School District)

Means conveyed the mayor’s  demands to the school board. Besides a change in policy, addressing the Facebook post, and a counter-presentation, the mayor also wanted a formal apology from the district. Means noted that during discussions, the mayor “referenced pending school board elections this spring.” On Tuesday, voters in Wauwatosa will elect new alders, with six more names on the ballot for school board. “He [McBride] believes that Pandora’s box was opened and it needs to be closed,” Means emailed staff.

Reactions from the board were mixed. Board member Sharon Muehlfeld questioned whether the school district should be involved in the complaint. “It does not seem appropriate that one person can demand these actions and then threaten the School District,” Muehlfeld emailed Means.

Another school board member, Michael Meier, joined the mayor in condemning the presentation. “My impression is that the school district gave attorney Motley a platform from which our students and the school district were used in furtherance of an advocacy effort against the city,” Meier emailed Means. “I fully support presentation of controversial topics, in a manner that explains opposing viewpoints in a short enough time frame that lends itself to educational presentation and comparison of differing viewpoints.” Meier backed the mayor’s calls for an apology. “This is not acceptable, and to be blunt, the school district needs to be smarter than what were in this series of actions.”

By Dec. 21, the district had drafted an apology letter to both McBride and MacGillis. “Please allow me to profusely apologize to the City of Wauwatosa and the Wauwatosa Police Department if you were offended by the District’s approval to allow Attorney Motley to speak to our students,” it read, also apologizing for the Facebook post. Nevertheless, it continued that the teacher involved “followed District policy #2240 correctly in inviting speakers to come to Wauwatosa East. As a former social studies teacher at the high school level, I support and defend the action of the teacher, who did not do anything wrong or improper.” In retrospect, however, the district conceded that it should have provided “a warning” to the city and WPD, and invited the mayor and chief to provide alternative perspectives.

James MacGillis, Wauwatosa's new chief of police. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
James MacGillis, Wauwatosa’s new chief of police. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The mayor was not satisfied since the apology only met one of his demands. In early February the high school hosted the alternative presentation. But McBride said he felt the district’s apology wasn’t genuine, and that Motley’s presentation was “riddled with factual errors and bias.” McBride mentioned that upon learning of the presentation, MacGillis sent WPD’s school resource officer supervisor, Sergeant James Morrill, to speak with the school district’s communication’s coordinator. He described the district’s reluctance to delete the Facebook post as suggestive “that the district is not interested in a good relationship with the city and WPD.”

School resources officers interact with students regularly, including holding their own presentations. Occasionally, these cover what police are and are not allowed to do in certain situations. Pavlik stated that, “the role of an SRO is to also work with students and staff to establish positive relationships based on trust and understanding. Open lines of communication and constructive feedback are essential to providing students with well-rounded courses of study and real-life knowledge and experiences.” She continued that the WPD supports the school district’s mission to “deliver an outstanding education that equips and inspires students to conquer their challenges now and in the future.”

A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

McBride stated that the class’s instructor could have talked about other topics from voting rights to gerrymandering. “He did not need to allow a one-sided presentation about a pending lawsuit against the city,” McBride said in a follow-up email in late December. He also accused the district of violating its policies around educational use of controversial topics, such as ensuring the material “does not tend to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular viewpoint” and “encourages open-mindedness and is conducted in a spirit of scholarly inquiry.” McBride also believed district employees had shared with Motley emails about his complaints. “Whoever did so should be warned that a future incident of this sort will result in discipline,” he emailed the district. “I expect an apology, too.”

But Frittitta told Wisconsin Examiner that “district staff members are not restricted from sharing their emails with individuals outside the district.” Frittitta added that, “please note that staff members are advised that district email should be used for job-related purposes.” In one of his emails, McBride pressed that “this controversy will not go away.” Stating that some residents had complained about the district taking sides against the police and city, McBride said he hoped the district would prove that it “is a true partner with us.”

Frittitta said that following the incident, the school board recently created a policy committee. The committee will review all district policies by 2023. “The policy related to controversial issues will be reviewed and potentially modified in the coming months,” she said. In the meantime, students continue to be allowed to discuss the city’s police department, protests, and difficult history. “The district has enjoyed a productive and collaborative relationship with the city of Wauwatosa and the Wauwatosa Police Department,” Frittitta continued. “The district is appreciative that several community members felt comfortable enough to express concern about attorney Motley’s presentation. The expressed concerns have been noted and will be taken under strong consideration when policies are reviewed.”

Graffiti which once existed in Wauwatosa's Hart Park before it was scrubbed away. (Photo | Isiah Holmes, 2015)
Graffiti which once existed in Wauwatosa’s Hart Park before it was scrubbed away. (Photo | Isiah Holmes, 2015)

“This is America,” Motley told Wisconsin Examiner. “And if we want to talk about the lawsuits, we can talk about the lawsuits. And as the attorney, I have the right to do that if I have my client’s permission to do that.”

“As an attorney in a free country,” Motley added, “I have a constitutional right and frankly an ethical right to discuss whatever cases I want to discuss, whenever I want to discuss … I will not be silenced. These families will not be silenced.”

Clarification: an earlier version of this story included a portion of a school board email demanding more information on school board policies on presentations and criticizing the tenor of a school board discussion. But that portion of the email apparently referred to a separate topic involving an AVID presentation, so the piece has been edited to remove that part of the email.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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