Burlington schools failed to address ‘racially hostile’ environment, DPI finds

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.

Burlington Area School District officials failed to report, investigate and respond to racist incidents for years, the state Department of Public Instruction has found, and ordered district officials to address its “racially hostile environment.” 

It took years of advocacy by Darnisha Garbade, a parent of two former Burlington students, to get to this point, while she repeatedly hit dead-ends with district officials.

“I asked, I begged, I cried and pleaded for help on many occasions to many of Burlington’s leaders but was treated as if I was the problem, instead of racism being the problem,” Garbade said in a news conference Monday. “I consistently spoke the truth, and even provided evidence when I wasn’t believed. And yet, I still wasn’t believed.”

Steve Plank, superintendent of the Burlington Area School District, did not acknowledge any wrongdoing but said he regrets that anyone felt discriminated against and will comply with the order. 

“Even though the ruling is difficult to read, we respect the expertise of DPI and want nothing more than for every student we serve to feel a sense of belonging at school,” Plank said in a video message

A spokesperson for the district, Julie Thomas, would not say whether the district would appeal the DPI ruling. District officials have 20 days to request a rehearing, and 30 days to request a review by a circuit court judge. 

“Though the leadership has not had an opportunity to formally discuss the ruling, it seems that the right thing to do at this point is to focus our efforts on the ongoing action needed to dismantle racism in the Burlington community,” Thomas said. 

After Garbade filed a formal complaint last March, an attorney hired by the district concluded there wasn’t enough evidence of discrimination against Garbade’s children. 

When the American Civil Liberties Union helped Garbade appeal the district’s finding to DPI, the state agency found numerous issues with the district’s handling of reports of racial harassment of Garbade’s children and many other students. 

On Friday, DPI ordered the district to submit a corrective action plan within 30 days, including specific steps to prevent discrimination in discipline; address the racially hostile environment; review its practices for reporting discrimination complaints; and bring its policies up to compliance with state codes. 

Plank said the district is already working on these measures. 

“We have work to do and we are committed to taking action needed to be an anti-racist district,” Plank said. 

Years of red flags

From 2016 through 2020, DPI found at least 19 incidents of racial harassment in district records. They included many racial slurs and extremely hateful language about Black and brown students. 

Garbade said her own children were called the N-word multiple times, along with other racist remarks. These were not documented with the 19 other incidents. Records show Garbade frequently communicated with a school principal about these incidents at least as far back as February 2019. 

The department asks annually for any verbal or written complaints of discrimination or harassment, but from 2016 through 2019, none of these incidents were reported. 

“There is little evidence in the record that (the district) conducted any investigation into a larger problem at the district starting in 2016 or even in February 2019,” the DPI found.  

In March 2019, DPI notes, the district agreed with Garbade’s suggestion to start a diversity and inclusion committee. But, DPI found, there was no evidence any progress was made on starting this committee. 

Over the many months that Garbade was raising concerns, the district never told her about the process for filing discrimination complaints, DPI reported. 

In March 2020, Garbade found the complaint form on the district website. She cited nine allegations of discrimination against her children and other children of color in the district. 

About four months later, an attorney hired by the district determined there wasn’t enough evidence behind her claims. Superintendent Plank and the school board accepted the findings. The ACLU helped Garbade appeal to the DPI. 

Among other issues, the state agency found the district discriminated against Garbade’s daughter after she brought a toy airsoft gun for show-and-tell day in 2017. 

The girl, then in the fourth grade, was punished with a suspension for violating a school policy that bans weapons and imitation weapons.

Separately, at the same school in the same year, a white student who brought a jack knife to school was given a lesser punishment of detention. DPI noted the district didn’t identify any legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the different response and concluded the suspension was discriminatory.  

Additionally, while questioning Garbade’s daughter about the toy, the principal told her about a Black child who was killed by police while playing with a toy gun. 

“This statement implied (the student) would be responsible if she was harmed as a result of someone else’s mistaken impression about (her) intentions,” the DPI report reads. 

For other allegations — including a death threat and physical assaults — DPI found there was a lack of evidence for racial motivation because the district failed to examine the incidents thoroughly when they occurred. 

“There is little evidence that racial motivation was considered or explored by (the district) ,” DPI noted. “There is also no evidence in the record that many of Ms. Garbade’s allegations, both those made in her email correspondence and those made in her formal Complaint, were ever investigated at all.”

In a statement, district officials said they were “stunned and enraged” to learn about racist incidents in their schools. 

“The stories of current and former students who have come forward make us realize that there is a side of our community unseen until more recently,” the statement reads.

Previous anti-racism proposal rejected

While Garbade waited for DPI to consider her appeal, she stayed active as president of the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, though she pulled her children out of the district.

Garbade thanked the coalition’s members Monday for standing by her. 

“They listened to my stories and experiences when others denied them, minimized and justified,” Garbade said. “They stood with me when others remained silent, disappeared and hid in plain sight. They challenged racism, ideologies, perspectives and privileges when all others followed the narrative of the majority culture here in Burlington.” 

The coalition last year submitted a proposed anti-racism and harassment policy for the district. They gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition calling on the district to hire more teachers of color, require diversity and inclusion training for all teachers, and improve curriculum on Black history and systemic racism. 

They have faced heated backlash. One member, a fourth-grade teacher, feared for her safety after she discussed the Black Lives Matter movement in answering students’ questions about protests in nearby Kenosha. On Facebook, commenters called for her firing and circulated a photo of her children. School board member Taylor Wishau said she would be “dealt with” by the district. 

After the lesson, 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. 

In November, the school board voted for some changes to its anti-harassment policy, adding a statement opposing racism and defining prohibited forms of racism. It excluded many of the ideas in the coalition’s proposal. 

At the news conference Monday, Garbade said the district should start by apologizing, “for failing to keep not only my child safe, but all children of color safe,” and implement the coalition’s previous proposal. 

Garbade said she knew of multiple other families going through the discrimination-complaint process in other southeast Wisconsin communities. 

“I’m hoping that DPI’s ruling will put all Wisconsin schools on notice that children of color deserve a safe learning environment,” Garbade said, “and you will be held accountable if you allow these things to take place on your watch.”

Contact Rory Linnane at rory.linnane@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane