Southeast Wisconsin principal files discrimination complaint after dismissal

By: and - October 11, 2023 5:15 am

Raymond School principal Jeff Peterson addressed a crowd who came out in support of him at a Sept. 27 School Board meeting where the Board voted 4-1 in favor of not renewing his contract. The next day, Peterson was escorted from the school, after being placed on administrative leave. (Dee Hölzel | Racine County Eye)

This report is republished by agreement with the Racine County Eye, where it originally appeared.

A rural Racine County school principal who was dismissed in September has filed a discrimination complaint charging he lost his job because he’s gay.

Raymond School principal Jeff Peterson filed the discrimination claim Sept. 29 with the state Department of Workforce Development.

According to a story from Wisconsin Public Radio and the complaint filed by Peterson’s attorney, Ben Cross, Peterson has undergone both direct and indirect attacks from newly elected members of the school board backed by the conservative group Convention of States, and Superintendent Michael Garvey, since 2022.

Peterson recently spoke about the need to continue the social-emotional learning curriculum in Raymond schools that includes the perspectives of discrimination based on race, gender identification, and sexual orientation. He was hired in July 2021.

He made the statements last month after the Raymond School District Curriculum Committee opted to part ways with Second Step, which provided the social-emotional learning curriculum. The decision was prompted by parents complaining about a video shown to seventh graders that showed harassment from various perspectives — including racial, gender and LGBTQ harassment.

“In my experience, students are not quite able to handle those things as they have been in the past. Character traits are very worthwhile. I value the instruction aligned to that, but there’s also a need for social-emotional regulation by students in classrooms,” he said during the committee meeting.

Soft lockdown at Raymond School

Raymond School was on soft lockdown from Sept. 27-29 after Raymond parent Mitchell Berman filed an open records request related to several school board decisions, including banning books and changing curriculum they don’t agree with. Specifically, Berman refers to Audrey Kostuch and Gwen Keller, board members who were elected with the backing of the Convention of States (COS), a conservative grassroots group aimed at “ending federal overreach, imposing term limits, and returning power back to the states.”

COS wants to convene a Constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution with a one-state-one-vote procedure instead of needing 75% of states to ratify an amendment for inclusion, according to the COS website. This would give states with majority white populations the same vote as states with more diverse populations, tipping the scales toward what white citizens support.

Keller reportedly ran for her school board seat because she found “highly disagreeable books in the school library,” according to WPR.

COS distributed a press release at the time stating Keller was unhappy about second graders watching an episode of the PBS show, “Arthur,” during which Arthur’s gay teacher got married, WPR reported.

Keller’s campaign and election occurred prior to Peterson being hired.

Berman told WISN 12 News, “They [the school board] began banning books, they began changing curriculum, and they have the ability to do that, however, none of them are educators. None of them have experience in that area. They’re unwilling to listen to stakeholders; the teachers are being shut out.”

His statement is supported by details in Peterson’s complaint, including statements Garvey made to district staff in 2021 about the need for Raymond’s curriculum to reflect conservative Christian values because that’s what the community wants and expects.

The district responds

Raymond School District maintains Peterson’s suspension and notice to not renew his contract has nothing to do with his sexual orientation. In addition to highlighting the vote taken in open session and outlining how other faculty and staff will cover Peterson’s responsibilities, the statement released to the press concludes:

Any notion that the school district or its board members would tolerate any discrimination, including that which is based on sex, sexual orientation, or any other protected classification is ridiculous and extremely disappointing.

Direct, indirect threats endured by Peterson

In his complaint, Peterson outlines several direct and indirect threats against him over the past two years, including:

  • Enduring anti-gay remarks during Peterson’s first school board meeting, during which district officials did nothing to stop those who made them.
  • Without prior notification, in August 2021, the district canceled health insurance for Peterson’s partner, citing “policy and the law” to support the move.
  • After Garvey was appointed Superintendent, he placed Peterson on an ambiguous improvement plan.
  • Peterson was instructed to teach health class to fifth-grade boys and told another adult would always be present to be sure Peterson wasn’t trying to indoctrinate his students.
  • In April 2023, Garvey reiterated his stance about reflecting conservative Christian values in the Raymond School District.
  • Garvey told Peterson’s attorney he thought Peterson would make a great principal in any other community but not in Raymond.
  • Kostuch made statements to Peterson about how to engage with female middle school students based on their menstrual cycles and how that consideration should be weighed when determining disciplinary measures.
  • In August 2023, residents voted at the Raymond Annual Community Meeting to have Garvey removed and prevent the school board from fighting a discrimination lawsuit, but the school board did not take action.

Annual community meetings are part of Wisconsin state statutes for towns whereby the electors (residents) have a direct say in the actions they want governing bodies, like the town board or the school board, to take on their behalf. Because the school board didn’t follow the direction of electors, town residents have the right to withdraw the authority of the board or to address specific members of the board during the next election, or both, according to a University of Wisconsin Extension fact sheet.

The Raymond School Board on Sept. 27 voted 4-1 not to renew Peterson’s contract. He was escorted out of Raymond School by Garvey with Racine County Sheriff’s deputies present on Sept. 28.

According to his complaint, Peterson was told in a hand-delivered letter from Garvey on Sept. 28 he was being investigated for misconduct and placed on paid administrative leave.

Racine County Eye left email and voicemail messages for comment from Garvey but have not heard from him. This story will be updated as details become available.

Reports republished from Racine County Eye are not available for republishing elsewhere.


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Heather Asiyanbi
Heather Asiyanbi

Heather Asiyanbi is a co-founder of Racine County Eye and currently a contributor to the publication.

Dee Hölzel
Dee Hölzel

Dee Hölzel is a staff reporter for the Racine County Eye.