She taught fourth graders about Black Lives Matter. Parents demanded her firing.

In late August, during second week of school in Burlington, Wisconsin, Melissa Statz overheard children in their fourth grade talking about kenosha.
A few students had seen buildings burned and boarded up in the nearby town, but they did not know the details of the protests that filled the streets after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a black man, in the back in August. 23. A student asked 30-year-old Statz if she knew what was going on in Kenosha, which is a half-hour drive from Burlington, a city of 11,000 that is 89 percent white.
Thought this might be an educational moment, Statz used a children's book, instructional video and worksheet this week to have a discussion about racism and why people protested. She thought the materials were neutral. The worksheet asked questions like, "What is the Black Lives Matter movement trying to do?" and "How do we stop systemic racism?" The students appeared to be engaged and asked many questions, she said.
"One of the black girls in my class came up to me and said," Thank you very much for teaching our class about racism, "said Statz, who is white. Another black kid - one of fewer than 50 black students in one District of more than 3,000 - hugged her after class, she said.
Later that night, a colleague asked Statz to look at a private Facebook community of more than 40,000 members called "Burlington, WI, Buy Sell & Trade". Her stomach sagged.
A parent posted photos of the worksheet Statz used and slammed it in an attempt to "indoctrinate our children". Like-minded parishioners were outraged and called on the school district discipline of Statz.
Arguments on social media fed into a heated school council meeting in September, racist slurs spread across Burlington school grounds, and a spate of harassing news targeted Statz, who accused her of seeding the small town.
"People have just decided if you support Black Lives Matter, you have to be a liberal," said Statz of the city residents who supported Donald Trump 2-1 against 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 problem."
Image: How a teacher's Black Lives Matter lesson divided a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
The turmoil in Burlington echoes conflict in schools and districts in recent weeks when classes first resumed after massive racial justice protests swept across the country and teachers joined the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of George Floyd's death brought the class.
In Florida, parents last month protested the Sarasota County School Board's decision to include Black Lives Matter in the district's curriculum. A Utah police union in September called for state officials to denounce prejudice against law enforcement in schools, citing an example of an elementary school teacher wearing a black life shirt. The union said one child was "emotionally devastated". Similar setbacks have occurred with everything from questions about school quizzes in Kentucky and political cartoons discussed in a class in Texas to educators in many states showing signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and Often rejected by parents who insist that politics be excluded from the classroom.
"I don't think it's bad to talk about racial issues in school, but all political bias and biased information is what I reject," said Adrianne Melby, a white mother from Burlington who worked on local Facebook groups is active and has also organized protests against pandemic-related restrictions this year.
The words "Black Lives Matter" have become a Rorschach test, putting people who consider this an inappropriate political slogan for the school and those who consider it an important statement to make to ensure that color students are safe and sound feel valued, be divided. Educators say districts must face these disputes head on as some teachers, parents, and community leaders advocate more open discussion about race, bias, and privilege in the classroom while others, including white parents and police unions, press back.
"Nobody has seen 2020 - nobody knows what it's like to teach right now," said Kathleen Osta, executive director of the National Equity Project, which helps school districts improve the racial climate on campus. “There is so much division. Administrators are afraid that people will come for them and they are not wrong. But they have to be willing to stand in a fire and take some heat. "
"I have to fight for all colored children"
This is Statz's first year of school in her hometown.
She graduated from the city's only high school in 2008, attended Northeastern University in Boston and taught at a charter school in Chicago for two years. After moving to Burlington with her husband and staying home with their children, ages 4 and 1, for two years, she took a job in town as a fourth grade teacher at Cooper Elementary School.
In May, after the video was released of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man in Georgia, Statz went to Burlington to find people who were also concerned about racial justice. She discovered the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, a local activist group founded last fall by Darnisha Garbade, a black mother who was disappointed with her own family's experiences at school.
Garbade, 40, said children repeatedly made derogatory remarks about black people to their daughters, especially her youngest, 12-year-old. For the past two years, Garbade said, white children spat at their daughter, beat her, and pushed her down the school stairs. According to school records, a boy threatened to kill her.
Garbade has repeatedly punished administrators in emails verified by NBC News for failing to do more to protect their daughter. She believes the harassment changed her daughter's behavior.
"I could see the pain in her eyes and I told her I didn't want her to let you define your character," said Garbade.
Darnisha Garbade founded the Burlington Coalition for Demontage Racism. (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
A district attorney who investigated Garbade's concerns concluded that the school's harassment and responses were non-racial and that school officials were acting sensibly. The State Department of Public Instruction is looking into a complaint from Garbade to investigate possible racial prejudice.
"When such situations arise, we take it seriously because we want all students in the school to feel safe and free from harassment," said Julie Thomas, the district communications coordinator, in a statement.
Garbade went to school council meetings to speak to other people in town about what they thought the school district could do better against racism. Several people joined the cause, calling themselves the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism.
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"We just came and took three minutes to meet and we were still unhappy," said Tammie Ketelsen, who came to Garbade with her husband, Levi, a pastor who both knows. "Nobody has ever apologized to this family for what they went through. We thought we might need to name what we do and ask other people to work with us."
The coalition raised concerns beyond Garbad's family.
While the district did not report any incidents of racial discrimination to the state from fall 2016 to spring 2019, it documented 21 incidents of racial bullying in reports to the school board during the same period, as records show. District data also shows that black students were almost five times more disciplined than their white counterparts.
"It went from having to stay here for my children until I have to fight for all the children of color," said Garbade.
In a July letter responding to the coalition's concerns, the district denied that high school children were labeled racist slurs, saying instead that there was “student-to-student micro-aggression that was considered racist may or may not be thought, but cause harm. "The district promised to review its policies and curricula for possible improvements and to consider a" more restorative approach to student discipline. "
Why so many teachers support Black Lives Matter
David Stovall, a professor of criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the intersection between race and school, has described reluctance to face racism in one's own community as "fear of self-accusation."
"You may never have owned slaves, you may never have uttered a racist epithet," said Stovall, who is black, "but you live in a world that takes my crime above my humanity and which I do for the most difficult thing for people hold. " to fight. "
In the case of a black child picked up in a largely white school, "it is a cognitive dissonance when I say it is not about race," said Stovall.
Image: Like a teacher? The Black Lives Matter lesson from EUR (TM) shared a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
According to surveys, 45 to 49 percent of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, but the rate is much higher among teachers. A poll by the EdWeek Research Center in June found that the vast majority of educators (81 percent) supported Black Lives Matter and only 16 percent were unwilling to teach or endorse an anti-racist curriculum.
"There is still racism in our society and educators recognize it," said Kim Anderson, the first black woman to serve as executive director of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union. "You see it every day in the systems that affect education. You see it in unequal funding where students have resources, stories that bring students into class, and we take that seriously."
In Burlington, the Coalition to Reduce Racism organized several rallies and protests this summer to raise awareness of racial justice in schools. In one case, a dozen people stood in front of Burlington City Hall, a simple two-story brick building, and sang "Black Education Affairs!"
Statz took part in protests and drafted a petition in June to add more black history and different perspectives to the school's curriculum. She also began to think about how she might be able to incorporate racial justice education into her classes.
"Our children are already experiencing racism," she said. “Our black and brown students deal with it every day. When they're old enough to experience it, the others are old enough to learn about it. "
She just hadn't planned on classes this early in the year.
Facebook creates a backlash
Jim Crawley, 60, was the first to write about Statz's classes on August 27 in the Burlington, WI, Buy Sell & Trade group. He said another parent shared the worksheet with him, knowing that Crawley, whose daughter is first class, was already concerned about Black Lives Matter being taught in class. He thinks it is a Marxist organization.
"You can't even go out to eat without them trying to get you on your knees," said Crawley, who is white. "What it is is reverse racism - they try hard to arm you to believe their beliefs. I have no problem with blacks being who we are. I have a problem with people trying to force others to believe what they believe. "
Images of the worksheet quickly spread online, including in a private group for Wisconsinites who were angry about the restrictions and mandates of Covid-19. "The teacher needs a punch," commented one person. Another encouraged people to tell Statz to move to a city like Milwaukee or Chicago that would be more receptive to learning about Black Lives Matter. Others said they had to call the school board to complain.
Taylor M. Wishau, a member of the Burlington School Board, commented on a post on the lesson plan that he was "angry." The teacher "became a villain and is being treated," he wrote. (Wishau didn't respond to questions asked by email; he appeared to delete his Facebook account after NBC News contacted him.)
Several parents, including Crawley, were upset that the worksheet stated that George Floyd was killed by a police officer (a medical examiner ruled Floyd's death was murder and the police officer who had a knee put to his neck , is charged with second degree murder). . "We all agree it looked horrible, but that didn't play out in court," Crawley said.
Burlington Headmaster Stephen Plank initially took a neutral stance on Statz's teaching. In a letter to parents on Aug. 30, he called the lesson "an individual choice that is not part of the approved curriculum," adding that if parents want clarity about what their children are learning in school, they are happy to Their children's teachers can call.
Statz said only one parent called her concerned and after explaining the goals of the class they are now in good shape.
Meanwhile, rumors swirled on social media that Statz had told students that all cops were bad and that their parents had wrongly said "all life is important" - things she said she would never say. People also wrote that Statz had been fired from her last teaching job in Chicago - an accusation that bothered Statz so much that she asked her former boss to write a letter that was reviewed by NBC News that denied the rumor.
Dozens of parents in Burlington joined a private Facebook group called Parents Against Rogue Teachers. Melby, an administrator of the group, said parents who were upset about the class were not against racial equality - they were upset that the lesson plan was not part of the approved curriculum and their fear of fatal shooting during the protests in Kenosha had been reinforced that week.
Image: Like a teacher? The Black Lives Matter lesson from EUR (TM) shared a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
"Burlington is a pretty safe city in general," Melby said. "People were concerned about this sort of thing coming into the area."
When the people on Facebook spoke for and against Statz's lesson, residents of the city of Southeastern Wisconsin felt like they had drawn the dividing lines.
A heated school council meeting
The showdown took place on September 14th at a school council meeting.
Around 200 parishioners packed into the stands of a gym and spoke for two hours for and against the schedule. Some defended Statz because they had created an environment in which their students were happy to ask difficult questions. Others called on the school authorities to fire her, saying she had set an agenda for fourth graders and violated district policy.
At the end of the session, a board member read a brief statement to the audience and confirmed that "this is a highly charged and emotional topic". Then, without using Statz's name, the board said she would not be fired for "one-time use of teaching materials". The problem was a "personnel matter" and was raised internally, the board said. (Statz said her headmaster and the superintendent had a conversation with her after complaints emerged, but she was not disciplined.)
A man in a Trump shirt criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement at the September 14th school council meeting in Burlington, Wisconsin (Mike Ramczyk via SLN Racine County).
Many people left the meeting disappointed. Those who wanted Statz fired believed the school authorities were giving in to Black Lives Matter protesters. Statz's defenders said the board should have defended them more clearly and learned lessons against racism.
"Our nation is still divided by racial issues, but the impression our students are given that we cannot talk about it is toxic to me," said Nicole Fish, 27, a white teacher who lives in Burlington and Kenosha is working . "Burlington is a microcosm of things that are happening in the Midwest in general and in our country as a whole."
No one from the school board or the county would approve of an interview. Thomas, the district communications coordinator, said the administration wanted to "focus attention on solving the problem" rather than continuing the debate and creating "mixed feelings in the community."
"What we experience in the Burlington Church represents what we experience in churches across America," said Thomas. “There are many sides and perspectives to understand, and it takes time and commitment to achieve community-wide reconciliation. The Burlington Area School District is committed to this process. "
"There is no neutrality in pursuing justice"
The school council meeting did little to calm feelings in the city. Statz, Garbade and other members of the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism said they experienced more harassment online.
"You started it - in my town ... mostly everyone will fight you," one woman told Garbade on Facebook. Screenshots of several messages sent to Statz show that men referred to her as a "human garbage" and a "low-piss apology from a teacher". One said to her: “You brought it with you” and at the same time commented on her “nice little family”.
The game continued offline as well. Statz said friends have stopped inviting them to neighborhood gatherings. Ketelsen said some people stopped attending her husband's church.
"I feel like most of the people made up their minds about racism and justice and things like that long before this stuff even came out and was debunked," Garbade said. "So it is very difficult to have conversations."
Then, three days after the school council meeting, a group of students at the Cooper Elementary School where Statz teaches, according to the district, etched “die [n-word]” and “down with BLM” into wood chips.
Image: Like a teacher? The Black Lives Matter lesson from EUR (TM) shared a small town in Wisconsin (Darren Hauck / for NBC News)
The following day, September 18, Superintendent Plank issued an open letter in response. He apologized for the district that had previously declared neutral in the Black Lives Matter curriculum.
"I see how insulting my perspective has been and understand that there is no neutrality in pursuing justice," Plank said in the letter. “The fact that we have to say explicitly that Black Lives Matter affirms the importance of people means that we as a nation have not done well at viewing black and brown people historically or presently as valuable members of our society. ”
He admitted that the district has received "a wave of polarized feedback, some of whom have racist, hateful and threatening sentiments," and said attacks against school staff and community members should stop.
Two weeks later, a group of minors sprayed the n-word on the floor of another school that was under construction.
Burlington Police did not release reports of the incidents, citing confidentiality for ongoing cases involving teenagers, but told NBC News that the vandals had stated that what they did was "stupid" and "stupid" .
Even before the vandalism, Garbade decided to pull her children out of Burlington schools and enroll them in Kenosha's district. "Given the recent hate crimes in Burlington," she said, "it seems like a very wise choice." However, she plans to continue to urge the Burlington District into anti-racism policies, adding lessons on black history to the curriculum, and eliminating racial differences in the discipline.
"I realized that someone had to raise awareness about Burlington and what was going on and challenge the people of Burlington to stand up and get better," Garbade said.
The hate mail to Statz has recently slowed down. She felt reassured when the school administration made more forceful public statements in support of them and denouncing racism.
Statz didn't teach another lesson about the Black Lives Matter protests, despite not believing she was doing anything wrong. Next time she thinks she would email parents before a lesson to stay one step ahead of developments on social media.
There have been moments in the past two months when she felt overwhelmed, but she said friends from Chicago reminded her of one thing that made the experience easier.
"If I taught this in Chicago, it wouldn't have the same effect as it does here," she said.

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