Brief

Uneasy start to the school year in politically charged Waukesha

By: - September 8, 2022 6:14 am
Line of books from the side with library shelves of books behind them

Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

School districts across the state are  navigating the effects of a highly charged political atmosphere as they go back to class this year. In May, Wisconsin Examiner reported that Republican lawmakers were approaching school libraries with a list of books parents felt should be removed. The list was just one facet of a much wider coordinated effort.

Emails sent and received by Rep. Jesse James offer a glimpse into this effort. James was sent a list of books by a parent who felt they covered subject matter that was inappropriate for children. The majority of the books dealt with topics geared towards LGBTQ youth, issues of gender identity and enduring racial and cultural stigmas. James reached out to every school district in his legislative territory inquiring as to whether the books were available at the schools. James wasn’t the only Republican lawmaker who’d been contacted regarding the issue.

Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) received similar emails from constituents. Allen’s staff said he did not receive a list of books, but Allen did reach out to the Waukesha School Board president to discuss the issue. The school district’s library catalog maintains a library “book concern” spreadsheet, which lists numerous books and whether they were subject to any action by the district. Some were noted as not in inventory, others were moved up a grade level, others weren’t moved at all. Five of the books, however, are listed as removed, including two which appeared on the list shared with James. Almost all of the books that appeared on that list were included in the Waukesha School District’s spreadsheet. At times, the books even appeared in the same order on the two documents. The school district’s spreadsheet, however, also includes books which did not appear on the list shared with James’ office.

After the Examiner’s first story on the book list appeared, Gov. Tony Evers warned on the first day of Pride Month that Republicans planned to ban books.

Emails sent by Allen and James also discuss exposing  teachers and staff to felony charges for providing “inappropriate” books to students. Waukesha, a conservative, mostly white suburb of Milwaukee is at the center of  these efforts. Conservative groups have filed lawsuits to compel the district to institute a policy of outing openly LGBTQ students to their parents. The district has banned images that could be seen as politically divisive including Pride Flags, Black Lives Matter material, and pro-police imagery. Some teachers and staff have opted to leave the district because of what they see as a hostile political environment.

The Alliance for Education in Waukesha, a group formed to defend teachers and students who express liberal political views, has numerous concerns as the school year begins. “Over the summer, the Waukesha School Board passed a new ‘controversial issues in the classroom’ policy that staff were directed to review as part of their training at the end of summer, which is very concerning,” the Alliance said in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner. “Instead of promoting a welcoming environment, policies set by the administration and board continue to drive fear and unrest, driving teachers to resign and find jobs in other districts, resulting in the highest turnover rate the district has seen in the recent past.”

Concerns for LGBTQ students in the current political climate are also on the minds of legislators. Sen. Chris Larson tweeted on Sept. 7 that “our schools should be safe places for students, where they can be their authentic selves with support from caring adults.” Referencing ongoing lawsuits around outing LGBTQ students to their parents, Larson tweeted, “Make no mistake, if schools are not able to provide support for LGBTQIA+ students, children and teens will be harmed for no good reason.”

The Alliance added that the “trend across the nation for radical conservative groups to attack school boards, LGBTQ rights of students, and ban books is playing out in Waukesha, and the Alliance continues to advocate against these concerning trends. The Alliance will continue to work this year to fight for our students of color, the rights of LGBTQ students, to fight for equitable policies for struggling families and ensure that the curriculum offered to all students reflects the diversity of our culture and history. ”

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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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