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Burlington Superintendent Addresses ‘Racially Hostile Environment’

Plank Says District Is Working On A Corrective Action Plan, Next Steps

Burlington Area School District
Photo Courtesy of the Burlington Area School District Website

The Burlington Area School District has had a year of high-profile race-related incidents.

In August, a teacher faced backlash from parents and school board members after including the Black Lives Matter movement in a lesson addressing her students’ questions about protests in nearby Kenosha. Another teacher is on leave after telling students in January that he intended to go to Washington, D.C. for the “Stop the Steal” rally. Earlier this month, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) found that the school district had created a racially hostile environment in response to a complaint filed by parent Darnisha Garbade, who had documented and repeatedly raised concerns about years of racial slurs, disproportionate punishment of Black students compared to their white peers, and other issues.

On WPR’s “The Morning Show,” Burlington Superintendent Steve Plank situated his district’s issues in the broader context of racism in Burlington and beyond.

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“We are a school district, we’re inside of a city, we’re inside of a state, and frankly, inside of a country that’s steeped in racism,” he said. “We certainly recognize that the schools can be at the center of that.”

School districts around Wisconsin have been taken to task over specific racist incidents and broader cultural problems. Parents are currently suing the Kettle-Moraine and Sun Prairie districts, and DPI is reviewing complaints similar to Garbade’s in two more districts.

Plank said Burlington has been working to identify the ways it perpetuates racism within the district. The district’s Board of Education adopted a new policy manual in November, in coordination with DPI, to address some issues. It denounced racism publicly, and has been working with outside groups with a track record of helping school districts and similar organizations address racism and formed student clubs at middle and high schools to work through these issues with children and help connect them to trusted adults they can go to with concerns.

In light of that, Plank said he wasn’t expecting DPI’s findings about the district’s racial issues and its order for a corrective action plan.

“We had spoken to DPI last July to make sure we were on the right path, and had gotten some confirmation that we were, so this was a little surprising to us,” he said.

DPI found Burlington’s suspension rates for students of color were 25 times higher than for their white peers. Plank said the district is working on a multi-pronged approach to address that and other problems in its corrective action plan to cover the district’s curriculum and materials, policies and practices, training and professional development, climate and culture and access and opportunity.

“The real work is going to come after the plan, and that’s when we really will have time to sit down and put stakeholder groups together, and have conversations,” he said. “This plan is the beginning stages, certainly not the end.”

The Burlington Area School District has 30 days from DPI’s order to put together its plan. After that, Plank said, the district will be able to take more time to work with stakeholder groups.

The Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, which Garbade co-created, has been pushing for more community input in how the district addresses racism. (Editor’s note: “The Morning Show” spoke with Garbade last week.)

Plank said his first priority will be working with students.

“As we work through this, our most valuable and most important constituency is our students — we want to and currently are collaborating with our students,” he said. “It is our desire to work collaboratively with stakeholders, be that community members, be that students, staff or including and up to our board of education and others in the Burlington community.”