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A fourth-grade teacher taught her class about systemic racism. Parents wanted her fired for it.

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.

A fourth-grade teacher taught her class about systemic racism. Parents wanted her fired for it.
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ Black Lives Matter protesters in Wade Park on September 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Seth Herald)

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.

 

 



 

 

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.

 



 

 

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.

 



 

 

"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."

 



 

 

"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.

 



 

 

"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."

 



 

 



 

 

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.

 



 

 

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.

 



 

 

"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.

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