The Burlington Area School District is being sued by an area woman for closing a meeting that had become unruly and restarted the meeting without members of the public present. Muskego-Norway is facing a community petition after its school board didn’t approve a book about the World War II-era internment of Japanese people in the U.S. for an English class for unclear reasons. In February, Racine Unified was one of an untold number of school boards nationwide facing a bizarre threat from a community member who wanted to file claims against the school boards “surety bonds,” even though that was a legal impossibility.
Those are three local examples of many that are parts of a growing phenomenon led by adults from across the political spectrum who feel they are being shut out of decision-making about what’s going on inside their community’s schools.
While these situations are unavoidable for those who attend and watch school board meetings, and unavoidable for the public officials whose email addresses and phone numbers are public, it’s almost impossible to tell how much of a difference the efforts are making in increasing transparency, protecting young people from harm or even influencing education in classrooms.
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More than 200 Muskego community members have signed a petition opposing a school board decision not to approve a novel about a Japanese American family’s experience in a World War II internment camp.
“We earnestly support the teaching of this book in the classroom, and we believe that rejecting this book will mark a severe decline in the quality of education and curriculum discussion in this district,” the petition states.
On June 13, the Muskego-Norway School Board Curriculum Educational Services Committee returned the book “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka to the school district’s Curriculum Planning Committee, which had recommended the book for an accelerated 10th grade English class. There is a chance the book could return to the committee, but community members believe it will not and the book — based on the author’s ancestors’ experience of being interned during World War II in the American West for nothing other than their ethnicity — won’t be taught at Muskego High School this upcoming school year.
Board members claimed the novel, which is based on the author’s family, is one-sided, diverse, oppressive and was selected from a list of potential titles that was too short.
Lawrence Hapeman, a 2021 graduate from Muskego High School, wrote the petition. When Hapeman heard about the committee’s decision not to approve the book, he was frustrated.
“It felt, and continues to feel, a little bit surreal that this is happening here,” Hapeman said. “It’s easy when it happens in other school districts to be like, ‘Oh, that’s happening in some other town.’ … Now it’s here.”
Community members also sent a letter to the school board asking the committee to explain its reasoning for not approving “Emperor.” The letter also asked board members to listen to community concerns and learn from subject matter experts.
“Our request is simple: Reopen the conversation,” the letter states. “First, allow for all concerned members of this community to ask any questions they have and say their piece. Then, as a board, open yourselves up to learning from authors, scholars and institutions about Japanese American history, incarceration and culture.”
It is unclear if the school board will shift direction at all.
The situation in the Muskego-Norway School District, which draws about one-fourth of its students from northwestern Racine County, is the latest example of area residents making their voices heard to school boards.
In June, Burlington parent Adrianne Melby filed a complaint alleging that the Burlington Area School District board violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law in an August 2021 meeting. If it is determined that the Burlington Area School Board violated the law, the seven board members could be fined up to $300 each.
During that meeting, Melby and others in a group of adults opposed to mask mandates in schools became unruly, shouting ceaselessly at the school board. In a split vote, the board decided to adjourn before regathering minutes in an undisclosed location within Burlington High School.
The group of adults had searched for board members through the school’s halls before being stopped by police officers.
In late February, a Racine Unified School District parent in favor of an optional mask policy threatened to file claims against RUSD’s surety bonds; claims never ended up being filed as the district does not take out individual bonds on its employees or board members.
Surety bonds are often carried by government bodies, including schools, as a form of liability insurance if an employee commits a crime — such as embezzling money. Typically, only school districts can file the claims, but parents who read misinformation online across the country believe they can, too.
The threat of claims against RUSD was one of likely dozens if not hundreds of similar threats in school districts across the U.S. this year and last year, and virtually all of them were baseless claims. Forbes described the attempts as “a new sort of tactic deployed by folks on the far right fringe.”
In early February, Raymond School in central Racine County removed three books from its library. Two of the books, “Speak” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” were removed by the district administrator following a board meeting during which a concerned parent read several passages.
“Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, is a novel about a 13-year-old girl who becomes mute after a sexual assault. Even without the novel being assigned to young students, the school district administrator moved to taking the book off of the shelves.
Anderson recognized that raising children is hard and some parents may not want their children to read her book. But, she said, the buck stops when it comes to removing books from circulation.
“One of our (country’s) foundations is that we tolerate people who are different than we are,” Anderson told a reporter. “That means that if a book makes you uncomfortable, don’t read it and tell the teacher you don’t want your child to read it.”
Otsuka, author of “When the Emperor Was Divine,” shared a similar sentiment. She said her novel is not trying to make readers uncomfortable but is inviting them to experience life from someone else’s perspective.
“Discomfort is definitely not a bad thing,” Otsuka said. “I don’t think the purpose of education is to keep us feeling comfortable. My book is … talking about fictional characters who hopefully have a very vivid presence on the page that students can relate to … I don’t think that that’s necessarily an uncomfortable experience. I think it’s really an experience of empathy and compassion.”
In Muskego, community members said they were not aware of books previously being sent back by the school board, and they fear it could become more common.
“I’m really afraid that this is an indication of what’s to come,” said Allison Hapeman, school district parent.
Allison Hapeman, who is Lawrence Hapeman’s mother, has three children in the school district and is worried how actions like the school board rejecting “Emperor” could impact their education. Hapeman said everyone she has spoken to, regardless of political affiliation, is concerned with the book not being approved.
“This is not a liberal-conservative issue,” she said. “I have not heard one community member who is OK with what the board is doing.”
Ann Zielke, a school district parent, fears the committee’s action could have a chilling effect on school district employees who make book recommendations.
“Teachers have enough to deal with,” Zielke said. “They don’t want to get pulled into this, so then I’m concerned they’ll be editing at every step of the process, and then everything that makes it to the board will be sort of a whitewashed version of what it should be.”
Allison Hapeman said books about historical wrongs like Japanese internment should make people feel uneasy. By limiting discussion of the issue, she feels the school board is restricting students’ education.
“It’s concerning to me, because it’s not even about this book in particular,” Hapeman said. “It’s that we are rejecting books because it’s making people uncomfortable in ways that they should feel uncomfortable … It’s not about indoctrination. It’s not about teaching students what to think. It’s about presenting them with real life things that have happened and saying, ‘What do you think about it?’… To deprive our students of that kind of engaging discussion is just antithetical to public education.”
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