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Death threats and resignations: Wisconsin schools see pushback against LGBTQ inclusivity

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In June, six teachers frustrated with the direction of the Waukesha School District offered their resignations at a school board meeting.

Some held back tears, while others read letters from colleagues listing a number of challenges they faced in the past year. Those included the district’s directive against political signage, which some say unfairly targeted LGBTQ pride flags, Gay-Straight Alliance posters and other inclusive materials. Days later, 30 more staff members submitted resignation requests.

In April, a Middleton High School French teacher faced backlash from conservatives after a video of his drag performance during the school’s Arts Week was shared on Twitter and criticized by a national right-wing social media influencer who called the performance “sickening”.

And in March, the Eau Claire School Board president received an anonymous death threat, which said the writer planned to “shoot up your next school-board meeting for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda.”

The incidents have come amid a concerted push by conservative lawmakers to limit courses that include LGBTQ topics, block transgender students from participating in sports and assert “parental rights” in schools across Wisconsin and nationwide, the latest front in the culture wars during a pivotal election year.

“I feel like anyone who uses their brain to look at what’s happening can identify that this is the same thing that’s happening in places like Florida and Texas,” said Melissa Tempel, an elementary school teacher in Waukesha. “It’s pretty scary, as an educator.”

Melissa Tempel

Tempel

Monica Whaley, a special education teacher who had worked in the Waukesha School District for 10 years, wasn’t completely out as a lesbian to the entire Waukesha East High School community before the start of the 2021-22 school year.

But she said the district’s signage policy, handed down before the start of the school year, “forced” her to present herself as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a staff member whose classroom was available to students who sought a safe and inclusive space to decompress, seek advice or escape bullying, which had increased since the removal of the signs, Whaley said.

“I loved my co-workers, I loved my students, I loved the program, but because of the direction that the district is going, I found that I couldn’t justify staying,” she said. “I didn’t think they prioritized the students’ safety or their education.”

David Simmons, an Episcopal minister in the Waukesha community and parent of an LGBTQ student told the board in June that the signage directive has left his child feeling ostracized and intimidated at school.

“The district has made it clear through its actions that it considers the pride flag or rainbows, or sometimes anything multicolored, to be a symbol of the political left,” he told the board. “Instead of focusing on the real factors that inhibit learning, this district has spent countless hours and thousands of dollars creating and fighting a manufactured ideological battle against members of its own student body and staff.”

Waukesha school signs

This is one of the signs barred from being displayed in a Waukesha School District building, due to its rainbow coloring, former teacher Monica Whaley said.

Simmons pointed to the number of resignations ahead of the 2022-23 school year as proof of that toll.

Whaley was one of 115 teachers out of 845 on staff who have so far chosen to leave the district before the start of the 2022-23 school year. During the 2021-22 school year, the district employed roughly 845 teachers to serve a district with an enrollment of 12,000 students.

In each of the four previous years, between 87 and 92 teachers left the district.

Waukesha School District administrators did not respond to a request for comment.

Politics rising

The Waukesha signage directive came as conservative politicians, pundits and constituents continue to demonize public schools and their staff, accusing those who support LGBTQ students of “grooming” them in a rallying cry to the polls in a pivotal midterm election.

“This is part of a pretty long-term pattern where Republicans will turn to their belief that parents know better than schools do and push back on a lot of education initiatives,” said Barry Burden, political science professor at UW-Madison.

Barry Burden

Burden

That pattern, Burden said, dates to the 1980s and ’90s, when Republicans were known as the party of “family values,” and because schools are places where kids spend a lot of time and parents cede their control to teachers and guidance counselors during the day.

Recently, conservative parent groups have successfully lobbied Republican lawmakers to assist in efforts to impose more control over their students while in public schools, with their sights set on limiting support for transgender students, specifically.

A series of Republican bills aimed at limiting school authority were introduced at the beginning of 2022. One of the four K-12 education bills taken up by the Assembly Education Committee, described by its backers as a “Parental Bill of Rights,” would have barred school staff from addressing students by their chosen pronouns or names without parental consent and guarantee parents the right to review instructional materials, as well as have their child opt out of a lesson if they disagree with what is being taught. The bill was vetoed in April by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who is up for reelection this year.

In 2021 the Republican-controlled state Assembly approved two bills that would have prohibited transgender girls and women from participating in sports on teams that aligned with their gender identity, amid a national push to do the same. Evers said he planned to veto the bills if they made it to his desk. The bills failed in the state Senate.

Death threats and drag shows

In Eau Claire’s spring election, two groups of three candidates were pitted against each other on either side of the LGBTQ inclusivity issue.

The race became heated after a group of school board hopefuls, Nicole Everson, Melissa Winter and Corey Cronrath, published a press release condemning incumbents for teacher training and development materials that focused on equity and inclusion in schools.

One slide in a February PowerPoint presentation about supporting LGBTQ students in the school building stood out to them. It said: “Parents are not entitled to know their kids’ identities. That knowledge must be earned.”

“That slide was pushed out to local activists who decided to, I think, misconstrue what was meant there, and began to try to spark outrage,” said school board president Tim Nordin, who won his bid for reelection in April along with fellow incumbent Marquell Johnson and newcomer Stephanie Farrar.

Tim Nordin

Nordin

On March 1, Everson, Winter and Cronrath published a statement lambasting the school district for including the slide, calling it a “blatant disregard for parental rights and responsibilities that has been allowed to creep into our schools under current board leadership.” Nordin characterized the effort as an attempt to drive votes ahead of the April school board election.

The press release was picked up and widely reported by right-wing outlets in Wisconsin and internationally.

Later in March, Nordin received an email from a 34-year-old California man that read: “I am going to kill you and shoot up your next school board meeting for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda. It’s now time to declare war on you pedos. I am going to kill you and your entire family.”

The community rallied around Nordin, the California man was arrested in April, and LGBTQ inclusivity initiatives have continued in the district in spite of the threat.

“Rather than be intimidated by this … I said, ‘We’re not going to back away from this. This is important work that we have to stand behind,’” Nordin said. “We see across the country and across the state direct attacks on LGBTQ children and people, and Eau Claire is not that place.”

In the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, a teacher who put on a drag performance during Arts Week had already offered to resign prior to the show and the blowback that followed. That blowback came mostly from out of state, after Dan Lennington with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty shared a video of the performance on Twitter in a post that was retweeted by LibsOfTikTok.

After the performance, the school’s principal promised to vet all talent acts in advance to make sure they’re appropriate.

Tweet from LibsOfTikTok

A tweet in April from conservative Twitter user @libsoftiktok calling out a Middleton-Cross Plains teacher.

“Was it appropriate for students? That’s up to each parent,” Middleton-Cross Plains School Board President Bob Hesselbein said. “School policies haven’t changed as toward our relationship and our care for those of our community who are LGBTQ, and I think that’s the most important thing. Our support is definitely there for them, and it will continue to be there for them.”

Bob Hesselbein

Hesselbein

Hesselbein said he heard that commentators from outside of Wisconsin used the performance as an example of how “terrible” public education is, though those commentators didn’t reach out to board members directly.

Exaggerated claims, looming elections

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, who is up for reelection this year, introduced legislation in June along with a Republican co-author and 17 other Republican co-sponsors, that would prohibit federal agencies from limiting federal funds for meals to school districts that have violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Grothman’s bill was introduced after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service announced in May that it will include sexual orientation and gender identity in its prohibition on discrimination found in Title IX guidance. The FNS manages federal fund allocations to public schools for meals for low-income students.

“Nobody dreamed that someday school lunches would be used as leverage to force school districts to do what the transgender lobby wants,” Grothman said in a statement. “Punishing schools for failing to adopt radical transgender ideology is wrong. Ripping school lunches from low-income students because their schools disallow biological males to enter women’s restrooms and compete in women’s sports is nothing short of disgraceful.”

Glenn Grothman

Grothman

But Grothman, who faces a more moderate Republican primary challenger to represent the 6th Congressional District on Aug. 9, may be exaggerating the reach of the amended Title IX guidance.

A spokesperson for the USDA said the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in Title IX guidance means state and local agencies, program operators and sponsors that receive federal food funding must review allegations of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Those organizations must also update their nondiscrimination policies and signage to include prohibitions against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. If discrimination does occur, the person who experienced the discrimination can file a complaint — nothing more. The federal agency then investigates Title IX complaints only when an alleged discriminatory act affects a person’s ability to participate in a nutrition program such as the National School Lunch Program.

Looking toward the midterms

The issues Republicans are raising, including allegations that schools are “grooming” students, are most alarming to their core supporters, and it’s often fear and enthusiasm that drive voters to the polls, Burden said.

Ahead of school board elections in the spring, Republican candidates used allegations that critical race theory was being taught in K-12 classrooms as a campaign tool, with mixed results. Conservative candidates — many of whom campaigned on how issues related to race are handled in schools — picked up school board seats in Waukesha, Wausau and Kenosha, but lost races in Beloit, La Crosse and Eau Claire.

The Republican Party has moved on from those allegations because, Burden said, there aren’t any solid examples of the theory being taught in classrooms. LGBTQ issues are more visible and are a more tangible set of policies, he said.

But for many teachers, the battles of the past year have brought them to a breaking point.

“I can’t support my students and families who identify as LGBTQ or are part of that community. That’s very unsettling to say the least,” said Tempel, who has signed a contract for the 2022-23 school year but plans to look for another job outside of education. “I’m bracing myself for the worst to come.”

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