Outrage over the lesson snowballed into a stream of harassing messages directed at the teacher, a heated school board meeting, and racial slurs being graffitied on the district's school campuses.
In late August, after a Black man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer outside an apartment complex in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Melissa Statz heard her students talking about the protests sparked by the incident. A couple of fourth-graders had seen burned and boarded-up buildings in the nearby city — which is a half-hour drive from Burlington, a town with 11000 residents of which 89 percent is White — but didn't know the reason for the unrest. Eager to know more, a student asked the 30-year-old if she knew what was going on in Kenosha.
Jacob Blake is at a spinal rehab center and his family continues to suffer and work for justice, exhausted and mostly out of the spotlighthttps://t.co/u0kSZlyz4T— Jenée (@jdesmondharris) October 17, 2020
Speaking to NBC News, Statz explained that she saw it as a teachable moment. That week, she led a discussion on racism and the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the nation with the help of a children's book, an educational video, and a worksheet; all of which she considered neutral material. The worksheet posed questions like, "What is the Black Lives Matter Movement trying to do?" and "How Do We Stop Systemic Racism?" and was successful in keeping her students engaged and involved in the discussion. "One of the Black girls in my class came up to me and said, 'Thank you so much for teaching our class about racism,'" Statz revealed.
How one teacher's Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small Wisconsin town. https://t.co/n46UoxRydN— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 24, 2020
However, later that night, her stomach dropped when a colleague asked her to look at a private community Facebook group called "Burlington, WI, buy sell & trade" with over 40,000 members. A parent had posted photos of the worksheet she'd used in class and slammed it as an attempt to "indoctrinate our kids." The post riled up like-minded community members who demanded that the school district discipline Statz. The outrage online soon snowballed into a stream of harassing messages directed at Statz, a heated school board meeting in September, and racial slurs being graffitied on Burlington's school campuses.
What Melissa Statz is doing is called education.— Tom Marshall (@tommarshall) October 24, 2020
Here's an example of indoctrination. It's quite different: https://t.co/yn378TtoVh
"People have just decided if you support Black Lives Matter, you must be a liberal," said Statz, who supported Donald Trump 2-to-1 over Hillary Clinton in 2016. "Somehow people have associated those words with a political party. I don’t know why. I think it’s a human rights issue." The parental outrage in Burlington isn't an isolated incident as schools and districts nationwide have heard from parents protesting the discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement in the classroom. David Stovall, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the intersection of race and school, calls this reluctance to face racism in one's own community as "fear of the self-indictment."
White parents are accusing a young Black teacher of “indoctrinating” their kids for teaching them about Black Lives Matter at a school near Kenosha, Wisconsin.https://t.co/oc25QjsrSc— theGrio.com (@theGrio) October 26, 2020
"You may have never owned slaves, you may have never uttered a racial epithet," said Stovall, who is Black, "but you live in a world that assumes my criminality over my humanity, and that I think is the toughest thing for people to grapple with." Kim Anderson, the first woman of color to serve as executive director of the National Education Association — the country's largest teachers union — explained that the vast majority of educators are in favor of an anti-racist curriculum because they see how racism exists in their everyday lives.
The Cooper Elementary School teacher recently presented the curriculum to her class addressing racism, recent protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. https://t.co/Y9t7fNjlHF— FOX6 News (@fox6now) September 15, 2020
"Racism still does exist in our society and educators are aware of that," said Anderson. "They see it every day in the systems that impact education, they see it in inequitable funding, which students have resources, stories that students bring inside the classroom, and we take that seriously." Statz affirmed this as she pointed out: "Our kids are already experiencing racism. Our Black and brown students are dealing with it on a daily basis. If they’re old enough to experience it, then the rest of them are old enough to learn about it."
I don’t want anyone teaching my kids compassion: that’s liberal indoctrination?— 2 Fast 2 Serious (@yo_uterus) October 24, 2020
I’m just really having a hard time parsing people saying they care about kindness and simultaneously claiming that considering others in your actions is left wing extremism
I’m pretty sure the answer is these folks are not actually thinking about it and are having a knee jerk reaction because doing work on your own failings his hard and scary. But I just don’t see how this attitude can survive honest engagement with the implications— 2 Fast 2 Serious (@yo_uterus) October 24, 2020
Burlington's school superintendent, Stephen Plank, initially took a neutral stance on Statz's lesson, calling it "an individual decision, not part of the approved curriculum" in a letter to parents. He also invited parents to call their children's teacher if they wanted clarification about what their children are learning in school. Only one parent called her with concerns, said Statz, and they are now on good terms after she explained the goals of the lesson. However, around 200 community members showed up for a school board meeting on September 14 where many called on the school board to fire Statz, claiming that she had pushed an agenda on fourth-graders and violated district policy.
Black Lives Matter debate takes center stage at Burlington Area School District meeting https://t.co/ciQna4RRKp via @journaltimesRemain true to your instincts Melissa Statz. The world supports you in the face of small town ignorance and bigotry.— andrew pazniewski (@pazniewski) October 25, 2020
They left the meeting disappointed when the board clarified that it wasn't going to fire Statz over the "one-time use of curricular materials." Statz felt the backlash from the decision both online — where several messages called her a "piece of human garbage" — and offline with friends no longer inviting her to neighborhood get-togethers. Then, three days after the school board meeting, a group of students etched "die [n-word] die" and "down with BLM" into wood chips at Cooper Elementary School, where she teaches. The next day, Plank issued an open letter apologizing for the district's neutral stance on the Black Lives Matter lesson plan.
If u protest a teacher who’s teaching kids about systemic racism & Black Lives Matter, u r racist. We r at this point in our country cuz none of ur previous teachers chose to speak on these issues and ended up creating an entire generation of inherently racist ppl. https://t.co/C5BCUVmKMd— marceline (@homicidal_mom) October 26, 2020
"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." The hate mail to Statz has recently slowed and she believes the school administration's statements supporting her and denouncing racism may have helped calm things down.