Burlington school board adopts slim anti-racism policy, rebuffing community coalition

Burlington Area School Board member Taylor Wishau comments on a proposed anti-racism policy Nov. 30.

In a school district catching attention for racist acts by and against students, Burlington school board members Monday rejected the bulk of an anti-racism policy proposed by a community coalition. 

The board voted for some changes to its anti-harassment policy, adding a statement opposing racism and defining prohibited forms of racism. It excluded other ideas, offered by the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, to address racist acts, improve curriculum, close disparities in disciplinary actions and assess other needs. 

Some board members said they planned to pursue parts of the coalition’s proposal in future administrative rules. 

“Our work’s not done yet,” board member Peter Turke said in an interview. “I think our end goal is the same as the coalition.” 

Darnisha Garbade, who started the coalition, said the policy’s shortcomings were “unacceptable,” noting that the coalition’s proposed policy was modeled on policies already adopted by other school districts. 

Garbade has been raising concerns for years about racist treatment of her children in the school district. On Monday, hours before the school board meeting, she was joined by at least 50 supporters in a protest at Echo Lake Park, where faith leaders led prayers. 

About 50 people attended a protest Nov. 30 calling on the Burlington Area School District to adopt an anti-racism policy.

Garbade said some came to oppose the coalition and someone found dozens of nails scattered in the parking lot at the park. 

“That’s the exact climate we are dealing with in Burlington,” she said. 

The coalition has grown as racist events escalated in Burlington. After public clashes over teacher Melissa Statz’s lesson on the Black Lives Matter movement, the N-word was found charred into school wood chips and on the floor of a building. An online class was “Zoom-bombed” by someone shouting racist remarks.  

The board’s policy passed quickly Monday, with all present members voting in favor. 

Board member Taylor Wishau, who previously wore a “thin blue line” flag mask to a school board meeting, sat Monday in front of what looked to be a controversial Betsy Ross flag, which has been associated with white supremacist groups. He did not immediately reply to questions emailed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the flag Monday night. 

Wishau said he supported the policy, while noting there would be more work ahead. 

“Just because we’re accomplishing this tonight doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do, so I think we all agree and acknowledge that,” Wishau said. 

Board member Diane Wood said it was important for the district to foster a safe environment, and called recent months a “teachable moment.” 

“Terms like equity, social justice, white privilege, systemic racism, uncomfortable conversations and ‘the talk’ have new meaning for me,” she said.

Darnisha Garbade heads the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, which has been working to address racial issues in the schools there for more than a year.

Turke thanked Garbade and others he said “courageously stepped forward and shared their stories, which were very difficult.” 

“I listened. I know all of us were saddened and disturbed to hear these things,” he said. “We are listening.” 

Garbade said she is skeptical the board will follow through with implementing the coalition’s suggestions, though she was heartened by the day’s protest. 

“There are some people in Burlington who truly care about Black and brown children,” she said. “They understand that all lives matter won’t matter until Black lives matter.”

Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report. 

Rory Linnane reports on public health and works to make information accessible so readers can improve their lives and hold officials accountable. Contact Rory at (414) 801-1525 or rory.linnane@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane