The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) declared that the Burlington Area School District (BASD) failed to comply and adhere to the district’s own discrimination policy. The ruling came following an event that displayed a racially hostile environment in September of 2021.
The incident involved Burlington High School football players who were caught using racial slurs and harassing football players from an opposing team. The Westosha Central High School football team’s players were verbally harassed during the end-of-game handshake.
The ACLU of Wisconsin stated in a press release that “Black student-athletes on the Westosha football team said they were called racial slurs by Burlington high school football players at a Burlington High School football game. When Westosha players went to shake hands with Burlington following the game, they were called the n-word as they encountered Burlington players.”
Per the ACLU of Wisconsin, the behavior isn’t new for the Burlington Demons. They report that after the incident was made public, other coaches publically shared on social media that they had witnessed similarly racist episodes while playing against Burlington.
“Some even said they forewarn their players about the potential for racial harassment when they play against Burlington,” the ACLU of Wisconsin said in a news release. For more information about the incident, refer to the DPI document.
Laura Bielefeldt is a Burlington resident and the president of the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism (BCDR). Bielefeldt filed the complaint with the Burlington Area School District after being approached by students from the opposing team who came forward with the allegations.
The release by the ACLU of Wisconsin stated that “the district responded by largely brushing off BCDR’s concerns – failing to follow its internal complaint procedures and refusing to disclose any further information to BCDR – even falsely suggesting that it was against the law for the group to bring a formal complaint.”
On Oct. 29, 2021, the Department of Public Instruction received a pupil nondiscrimination appeal regarding the matter.
DPI concluded the following:
- The Burlington Area School District failed to follow the requirements of its own discrimination policy (2260), which required certain specific investigative steps by the District’s designated Compliance Officer.
- No interview of the complainant was conducted.
- The CO did not prepare a written report for the superintendent.
- The superintendent did not issue a final written decision and provide a copy to the complainant.
- Where the District has defined a specific investigation procedure for use with properly-filed discrimination complaints, the existence of a separate investigation that may be occurring by other district staff does not relieve the District of its obligation to comply with the specific investigation procedure it has identified and adopted for discrimination complaints.
- “The existence of a separate, contemporaneous investigation conducted by the Athletic Director, apparently in collaboration with Westosha personnel, into similar allegations” was ongoing at the time.
- The district failed to notify the complaintant of her right to appeal to the state superintendent (as codified in Policy 2260).
The Burlington Area School District was already in the process of implementing a Corrective Action Plan submitted on May 7, 2021 that resulted from case #20-PDA-02, to adequately redress a racially hostile environment in the district.
Per the decision made by the DPI, the district was instructed to continue with the ongoing Corrective Action Plan:
Pursuant to Wis. Admin. Code § PI 9.08(1)(a)4, DPI orders corrective action. Burlington Area School District is already engaged in an ongoing corrective action plan, resulting from 20-PDA-02, to adequately redress a racially hostile environment in the district (“the ongoing CAP”). DPI acknowledges that many of the action items that may be included in a corrective action plan resulting from this matter are already being taken by the District pursuant to the ongoing CAP. As such, DPI orders an addendum to the ongoing CAP which provides specifically for training of district staff on Policies 2260 and 5517 and training for the District’s COs regarding the proper steps to an investigation under those policies.
Burlington Area School District Commitments
Commitments made by Burlington Area School District in response to racial inequities:
- The Burlington Area School District will ensure its discipline practices are non-discriminatory.
- The Burlington Area School District will nurture an inclusive environment free from racism so that every student has a sense of belonging.
- The Burlington Area School District will review the reporting of and guidelines for discrimination complaints.
- The Burlington Area School District will revise its policies and procedures to ensure they are in compliance with the Wisconsin Administrative Code.
For further information regarding school policies 2260 and 5517, please refer to the Corrective Action Plan referenced above.
Following the decision that was made by DPI, the following comments were shared by ACLU of Wisconsin staff attorney Elisabeth Lambert: “BASD’s primary response to the fact that its high school football team has an established history of racially harassing opposing players was to admonish the people raising concerns and refuse to cooperate with them.”
Lambert asserted that systemic racism is at the root of the problem.
“Allegations of systemic racism at a school need to be taken seriously, and community outreach should be welcomed, not dismissed or derided. BASD owes it to parents, students, faculty, and the larger Burlington community it serves to invite their input and meaningfully address their concerns.”
BCDR Member Erin Ramczyk iterated the severity of the issue and called compliance with the district’s own policies the “bare minimum,” which was not even adhered to in this situation. She then stressed the importance of zero tolerance.
“Following its own discrimination policy is the bare minimum for the Burlington Area School District. Racism is serious, so the consequences need to reflect the severity every single time. This is the only way to send a clear message that there is zero tolerance of racism in any circumstance.
Ramczyk also noted that teachers have expressed a lack of available training.
“BASD teachers we’ve spoken to have also shared that there is a significant need for professional development opportunities as it relates to culturally responsive teaching. And educators need to know that they are supported by the administration,” stated Ramczyk.
“In this climate,” she continued, “teachers are not going to feel comfortable teaching and facilitating discussions on race-related topics unless their leaders can foster an environment in which they feel safe and empowered to do so, which doesn’t seem to be the case here in Burlington.”