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Students, parents confront New Berlin school board over comments about race, Black History Month

Posted at 10:28 PM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 11:27:33-05

NEW BERLIN — Several parents, students and members of the community turned out to a school board meeting in New Berlin on Monday night to express their outrage over comments made by board members regarding race and Black History Month at a meeting last month.

During the public comment portion of Monday's meeting, speakers shared messages like this to the board:

"Currently there are students at West that do not feel safe attending school because of their skin color," one student said. "This is unacceptable and we need to direct our district's resources to address this pressing issue immediately."

"You have no idea what it is like to grow up in a community of mostly white people as a Black person," one speaker said. "It is not your place to tell people that you feel like Black History is not important."

Many of the speakers came to the meeting in response to comments made by several school board members at a meeting in February, following the superintendent's presentation about diversity and inclusion.

Here is part of the conversation:

“I don’t want us to go down the path that what social media is doing now, let’s not get stuck up in that, you know where race is everything, I don’t believe it is, we make it bigger than it is and I have concerns about bringing that into the classroom,” board member Susan Manley said.

“I understand where you’re coming from, my interpretation of this was that this was a response to the petition that we got,” board member Kate Unger said. “This was the administration talking to the writers of the petition and trying to respond what they were asking for by showing what we are already doing. And I re-read that petition this weekend and this presentation I do not feel addresses that, and I don’t think race is just ‘just everywhere’ is an accurate statement. I think race is everywhere right now because Black people are dying from police brutality. I’m trying not to get crazy political.”

“I will interject with that last statement, I’m personally offended at one, attack of a police officer because as a minute portion, and the statistics all show it, it’s a minute statistic to throw police under the bus, 100 percent I completely disagree with you," board member Jeffrey Kurth said. "I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but the Black on Black crime and the Black on Black Death is far more systemic and far more of a problem across the entire country. And I do agree with the idea of inclusivity. I believe that if we have a Black History Month, which I’m seeing a poster of for right now, I don’t see Jewish History Month, I don’t see American Indian History Month, I don’t see Asian History Month, Indian History Month, I believe it all should be included and all should be inclusive. I completely disagree with Black History Month, I really do because if we’re going to be inclusive, we shouldn’t be isolating by race. Period. I think he’s showing that we are diverse. My daughter’s best friends range from Indian, Korean, Asian, Black, it doesn’t matter. She’s got friends from every single race which means we have it in our school, we have diversity in our school. We have a Hispanic superintendent we had for 10 years. So I believe inclusivity is there, I think we can do more, but I think the push for race that everybody is talking about, I don’t believe it’s as bad as everybody thinks. I really do. I feel that we talk about bullying all the time, but the fact that if you have an opinion that it’s not a problem, it seems to be a problem, you’re making it a problem that doesn’t exist. The racial divide that’s happening now, it doesn’t need to happen, it doesn’t need to be pushed. We need to take the race out of it. Because it doesn’t matter, you need to be a good person, you need to love your neighbor. You need to get along with your neighbor. You need to include everybody and everything, and we need to eliminate the whole race title out of it and include everyone.”

Kurth sent this statement in response to his comments:

"On (Feb. 22), we discussed passionate topics, and I am a passionate person. I believe in diversity, inclusion and the celebration of all cultural, ethnic and other differences in our schools. If anyone interpreted my comments outside of that context, or if anyone was offended, I apologize. What I meant by my comments is that we all have differences and are all unique and that we should continue to strive to promote the inclusion and diversity of all students, staff and community members."

TMJ4 News reached out to Manley but did not hear back.

At the meeting Monday night, speakers said they want the district to establish a new task force dedicated to improving its diversity and inclusion curriculum.

"That same board member that disagrees with Black History Month also claimed that we need to take race out of it and it doesn’t matter," said parent Joe Dietrich. "But the DPI social studies standards historical eras and themes section makes it clear that students should be learning about historically marginalized groups."

Following the public comment portion, Board of Education President Janet Schulz said there technically shouldn't have been a discussion after the presentation at the previous meeting.

"As experienced at the last meeting, it can be easy for conversations to devolve into sharing personal stories, beliefs and politics. The presentation from the administration about diversity and inclusion was not an action item requiring a vote, and therefore should not have been open to debate," Schulz said. "Moving forward, discussion will be limited for non-action items on the agenda. This is not intended to shut down dialogue, but to keep it focused and done in a proper manner."

New Berlin Superintendent Joe Garza issued this statement:

"We felt it was important to provide a presentation to the School Board about diversity and inclusion and our efforts to achieve both in the School District of New Berlin. The presentation, and planned future presentations regarding diversity and inclusion, are not a direct response to the petition, but they are the result of the petition. They are meant to show and demonstrate the things we already are doing regarding diversity and inclusion, what we are doing well and potential areas of growth.

As was discussed at the meeting, our goal is to have all students – of any race, sexual orientation, religious background, socio-economic status, etc. – feel welcomed and included in our schools and in our district. As was clarified in the meeting, and shared with Board members previously, this was meant to be an ongoing dialogue that began with a high-level presentation Feb. 22. It was intended to be a starting point, with more conversations and information at future meetings."

The board said it will discuss more diversity and inclusion efforts at its next meeting.

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