Report details how racism divided Burlington in the wake of Black Lives Matter movement

    The Burlington Area School District was torn apart after a teacher formed a lesson around racism and Black Lives Matter protests, according to an NBC News report. (Burlington Area School District Facebook)

    In August, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake started a protest movement in Kenosha, a fourth grade teacher in Burlington, Melissa Statz, heard her students talking about the nearby city. 

    Statz, seeing her students’ questions as a learning opportunity, built a lesson plan around the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism and protest. That lesson plan ignited a storm of online hate that soon showed up offline in tense school board meetings and racist graffiti on school grounds, according to a news report from NBC News

    Burlington, the home of Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, is 89% white. 

    Statz used an educational video, a book and a worksheet to teach her mostly white students about racism. She says her students were engaged and asked questions. Two Black students thanked her for the lesson. 

    The Burlington Area School District was torn apart after a teacher formed a lesson around racism and Black Lives Matter protests, according to an NBC News report. (Burlington Area School District Facebook)

    But the night after the racism lesson, according to the report, the parent of a first-grade student — who is quoted as saying Black Lives Matter is “reverse racism” — posted a photo of the worksheet in a community Facebook group and it soon went viral. The post quickly moved to a group created to fight against COVID-19 restrictions. 

    A Burlington School Board member, Taylor M. Wishau, commented on a post of the worksheet saying he was “irate” and said Statz had gone “rogue.” After being contacted by NBC News Wishau deleted his Facebook account. 

    One of the parents extensively quoted in the NBC News story, Adrianne Melby, has been heavily involved in reopen protests and efforts to fight restrictions meant to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

    “I don’t think it’s bad to be talking about racial issues in school, but the whole political slant to it and biased information is what I oppose,” Melby said. 

    Also detailed are specific charges of racism in the district from Black parents — and a lack of response from school administrators. 

    One mom, Darnisha Garbade, explained how her daughters were harassed by white students. School officials decided the attacks — which Garbade said included her daughter being spit at, punched and pushed down stairs — had nothing to do with race. 

    The report includes data that shows between fall 2016 to spring 2019 the school district reported zero instances of racial discrimination to the state, but reported 21 instances of bullying based on race to the school board in that same time period. 

    The school district’s initial response to the outcry was to remain neutral, but rumors continued to swirl online about Statz and a Sept. 14 school board meeting drew more than 200 people. 

    In that tense meeting, school officials said they wouldn’t fire Statz but continued to remain largely neutral. 

    Racial epithets were etched into the mulch outside the elementary school where Statz teaches. 

    On Sept. 18, the district’s superintendent, Stephen Plank, issued a more forceful statement supporting Black Lives Matter and condemning racism. 

    “I see how my perspective was offensive and understand that there is no neutrality when pursuing equity,” Plank said in the letter. “The fact that we even need to specifically say that Black Lives Matter to affirm the importance of human beings is to say that we as a nation have not done a good job of regarding Black and brown people as valuable members of our society historically or currently.”

    A few weeks later, the N-word was spray-painted onto the floor of another district school.

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    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.