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7 Investigates: A Need to be Heard Pt. 1

Lessons learned from a school year in a pandemic
Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 10:37 AM CDT
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AMHERST, Wis. (WSAW) - Between school board meetings about whether students and staff would be required to wear masks, political disputes about the state of the country, and strong, continuous calls for racial justice, experiencing deja vu as a new school year in a pandemic begins is understandable. The Tomorrow River School District, however, is dispelling that sense as it begins with some changes.

The changes will be most noticeable to staff but district leaders say they are meant to, ultimately, translate into better serving the staff, students, families, and community.

“We’re here for everybody, every student who lives in our district that comes to our school,” Mike Klieforth, the high school principal urged.

A mural painted by students on the walls of the Tomorrow River School District years ago...
A mural painted by students on the walls of the Tomorrow River School District years ago depicts a world touched by a variety of hands. On the left of the mural, the words "WE MAY HAVE DIFFERENT RELIGIONS, DIFFERENT LANGUAGES, DIFFERENT COLORED SKIN..." are painted, and it continues on the right side, "BUT WE ALL BELONG TO ONE HUMAN RACE."(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

The school district located in Amherst fits its elementary, middle, and high schools all in one building. Peppered throughout are also murals and signs showing they embrace diversity, and respect people of all backgrounds. However, the events of the outside world enter the classrooms during the 2020-2021 school year. The district faced several age-old diversity challenges all schools experience, heightened by society’s social climate at the time.

It led the district to create an internal diversity committee amongst its staff and offer optional professional development training for staff in the areas of culturally responsive education, and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“It’s time to look at policies and look at, you know where we’re going as a district,” Mike Ritchie, the district’s part-time administrator said.

“We are not going to take away anybody’s education or make anybody’s education less to give to somebody else,” Klieforth explained. “It is to create an equal education for all of our students and to give our staff the tools that is (sic) needed to make sure we can navigate through that the best way we can.”

“It’s time”

Providing a safe, inclusive environment for kids to learn and grow to become successful adults is the goal of schools across America, Wisconsin, and at the Tomorrow River schools in Amherst. However, executing that goal is not always simple.

“There are so many curve balls that come into that, but we need to be prepared for anything with our students because students come from a wide variety of places,” Klieforth said.

According to the Department of Public Instruction’s latest district report card for Tomorrow River, which is from the 2018-2019 school year due to the pandemic, the district serves roughly 1,100 students. Demographically, students are predominately White, about 94%. About 2% of students identify as having two or more races, so around 20 students. Hispanic or Latino students make up another 2%, and Native American or Alaskan, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander each make up less than a percent of the student population, or about five students or fewer in each group. One or two students are English language learners. Nearly 11% of students have disabilities. A little more than a quarter are economically disadvantaged. Sexual orientation demographics are not parsed out in the district’s report card, but the latest statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey results show nearly 10% of students in high schools around Wisconsin identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.

School staff members and families in the Amherst community told 7 Investigates about situations over the last year that largely involved issues around diversity and inclusion. They ranged from a student wearing a shirt with the words “Black Rifles Matter” -- which offended some people, to student artwork being temporarily taken down or hidden due to the content because an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was happening at the same time, to disagreements over books written from a non-majority perspective in a variety of age groups and setting, like assigned reading, books available in a school library, and optional programs.

“It’s definitely a balancing act, and it’s really a no-win situation for us because there’s (sic) definitely people who aren’t going to understand that and be upset with us over,” Klieforth noted.

The individual situations are detailed separately below. 7 investigates interviewed the district leaders at the end of the 2020-2021 school year and in each instance, the respective district leaders said they talked with the students, staff, and parents involved.

Klieforth updated that over the summer during training, both a UW-Madison and a Notre Dame legal sources told him they “handled our first amendment controversies correctly.” Regardless, Klieforth and Richie said there is always room to improve.

“You know it’s procedures, policies, every district is always about continuous improvement,” urged Richie.

“We need to ensure that we are the most educated we can be when conversations do come up, or topics do come up in class, that our staff feel prepared to handle them properly and correctly and feel good about helping the students be more educated,” Klieforth stated.

That is where the first change comes in -- the opportunity for staff to receive that additional professional development. The district is partnering with CREATE Portage County, which offers more than just a space to share and grow ideas.

The executive director, Greg Wright will be leading the optional staff training once a month. Before becoming executive director, Wright was a high school English teacher in the suburbs of the Twin Cities and Chicago.

“In both of those schools, I was involved in equity, diversity, and inclusion work in the school.”

He said early on in his teaching career, he was trained in different techniques both for use in the classroom and for the general school culture to ensure the school is supportive of all students.

“I try to share those techniques with as many people as I can if there are teachers, or principals that are interested in seeing similar stuff happen in their schools.”

He explained a parent in the district who was aware of his skill set reached out to him after first talking with some teachers “interested in learning more about how to be more inclusive and supportive in their classroom.”

“After that conversation, I reached out to the principal here and he and I had a conversation and he agreed that it would be helpful if we sat down and just figured out what teachers felt like they needed and what resources they were missing,” Wright said.

They set up three preliminary sessions before the school year ended this spring to identify the training needs, with the intention “to dig more deeply into topics that provide teachers with the support they need so they can handle topics like this more effectively in their classroom.”

In talking with teachers generally about training, he said they want to know how to navigate conversations in the most inclusive and equitable way in the classroom, how to do that within the bounds of what a school should be doing, and how to do it so students leave those conversations feeling respected and empowered.

“Teachers can introduce topics in their classroom,” Wright stated. “The teacher isn’t supposed to take a political stance on that topic, but to facilitate productive conversation around topics is appropriate for teachers to do as well. And I think especially when you’re getting into topics of race or gender or sexuality, it’s important for teachers to feel comfortable in navigating those conversations and knowing how to facilitate appropriately so that people feel respected, but also can voice their opinions in those conversations.”

Some of the methods and philosophies he includes in this type of training include Emily Style’s “Windows and Mirrors in the Curriculum.”

“Every student should both look at themselves in the curriculum see themselves reflected in the curriculum which is the mirrors part,” he explained. “And they should have a chance to see into other students’ lives and that’s the windows part. And so, in an ideal classroom, every student gets to see themselves in the curriculum and gets to see their classmates in the curriculum and learn about what they may be going through as well.”

He also includes Dr. James Bank’s “5 Dimensions of Multicultural Education,” and Culturally Responsive Teaching which the DPI offers.

Wright recognizes and understands conversations about these topics can be uncomfortable but, citing Ruth King, he said discomfort is something everyone has to get used to.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is give teachers and principals tools to have those conversations, to have them effectively, to make sure students feel respected in those conversations, make sure parents feel respected in those conversations, but also to recognize that this is a learning environment and if we can’t have these conversations here where can we have them?”

Speaking to the preliminary sessions so far, Klieforth said he is pleased with Wright’s approach.

“He does a really good job with it and explains it in a way that really makes sense for staff and it’s definitely a no-brainer and how he presents it.”

The key is having everyone heard and respected and equipping teachers and schools to support and empower students.

“Students who aren’t seen and supported and respected in a classroom setting, have outcomes that are really negative for them whether it’s just academic performance. Whether it’s access to college or career paths in the future, or whether it is mental health challenges or higher suicide rates, right. We see that in, in historically marginalized groups of students.”

Some of that is reflected in the school’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The biennial survey is from 2019, as the 2021 YRBS was postponed due to COVID-19 and is being conducted this fall. The YRBS is a national effort that has students take an optional survey anonymously to monitor health-risk behaviors at the middle and high school levels. Amherst High School had 65% of its 9-12 grade students participate, which the study ranks as a “fair” response.

Out of all of those surveyed, 62% of students agreed or strongly agreed that students get picked on at school for being different. That consensus is seven points higher amongst seniors.

Amherst High School's 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that out of all of those surveyed,...
Amherst High School's 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that out of all of those surveyed, 62% of students agreed or strongly agreed that students get picked on at school for being different.(Amherst High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, CDC)

Roughly three out of every five students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender do not feel like they belong at school compared to about one in five straight, cisgender students.

Roughly three out of every five students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender...
Roughly three out of every five students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender do not feel like they belong at school compared to about one in five straight, cisgender students.(Amherst High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, CDC)

More LGBTQ students report being bullied compared to straight, cisgender students.

More LGBTQ students report being bullied compared to straight, cisgender students.
More LGBTQ students report being bullied compared to straight, cisgender students.(Amherst High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, CDC)

Most of the responses broken down by race and ethnicity were not available because groups outside of white students were redacted, too small to show without potentially violating students’ privacy. However, one breakdown large enough to be reported showed that while students in all racial and ethnic groups reported a high rate of poor mental health, it was 25% higher among Hispanic or Latino students.

While students in all racial and ethnic groups reported a high rate of poor mental health, it...
While students in all racial and ethnic groups reported a high rate of poor mental health, it was 25% higher among Hispanic or Latino students.(Amherst High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, CDC)

The YRBS authors offer resources and suggestions for how schools can address disparities amongst students within the report.

“It is important that we understand all of the students that are coming through our school, and that we’re equipped with the tools that they need to be successful,” Wright urged.

“When students leave… they have to have the tools to navigate through society as well and, and that’s part of the educational system to make sure that they’re aware of their surroundings and people around them and being respectful of all citizens,” Klieforth stated.

In addition to staff training, the district also started an internal, 15-member diversity committee amongst its staff. Klieforth chairs the committee and Richie said it is made up of people from “a wide variety of belief systems.” Richie said the committee is not public where it would require public meetings and posted agendas.

“Right now we’re trying to just lay the groundwork for what we want inclusion to be in our schools,” Stanley Walker, a fifth-grade teacher and member of the committee said.

“What we should be doing, what the goals are, what we need to look at how we can improve as a school district when it comes to diversity inclusion,” Richie listed. “And you know, we should be doing that all the time looking at policies and trying to make sure everyone feels safe in the building and is not intimidated by anyone and everyone is treated fairly. And you know, I think overall we do a pretty good job but, again there, I think there’s always room for improvement in every district.”

“One thing that I would like to see done is just pull the, pull the, the disagreement out and, and just give the students, and give the teachers and give the community an opportunity to look at, you know, the students, as human beings,” Walker aspired. “Look at them as people. Look at them as citizens. Look at them as productive people in our society because, you know, we’re not raising children, we’re raising adults. You know, and so I think if we look at it at that in those eyes and we can get the anger, the feelings and just look at the people, I think that’s what we’ll start seeing a lot of growth in our community and in our school.”

“Every student has, you know, incredible values that we want here and we’re not going to judge anybody on who they are, what their religious views are, their political views. The bottom line is when they walk in our doors, we’re going to do the best job we can to give them the best educational experience and the safest place to learn as possible,” Klieforth concluded.

The district already has an LGBTQ+ club, SPECTURA, in the high school, which has hosted a conference centering around those topics and issues for area schools. The club also partnered with UW-Stevens Point to provide LGBTQ+ Safe Zone training and signs, indicating teachers who are available to students as supportive, safe allies for students to confide in about their identities and experiences. GSAFE, an organization with a mission to create just schools for LGBTQ+ youth, has also recognized teachers in the SPECTURA club for their work with youth.

Reading into it

Sources, either parents or staff within the school district, shared with 7 Investigates a variety of situations from the last school year that they had concerns about. These people ultimately were not comfortable interviewing, but shared their concerns on background.

There were at least three situations involving reading material, though each situation involved a different set of circumstances and follow different guidelines. One involved assigned reading material, another involved reading material available at the elementary school library, and another involved the Read Across America program.

“Each one of them is a different answer because it’s a different setting,” Julie Underwood, UW-Madison’s School of Education Dean Emeritus noted, “and all of those facts absolutely matter.”

Underwood has spent a career in education, including serving as the general counsel of the National School Boards Association. The general counsel represents school boards across the country, in particular, cases that end up in the United States Supreme Court.

She said over the last 50 or so years, parents and students have become more involved in what is or is not being taught in schools, particularly when it comes to opting students out of pieces of their education. She said schools have become more sensitive to individuals’ interests and concerns and allow that more often even though they do not have to.

“That may be because of the diversity of opinion and the diversity, the further diversity in our own communities,” Underwood hypothesized. “And if it’s not something critical. It, it seems to be good policy.”

The USSC ruled parents cannot opt their child out of pieces of the curricular standards, however, like opting child out of math or music.

“The court said no, that, you know, once the child is-- comes into the curriculum, the child has to abide by the curricular standards. And that was an older case where that flexibility really wasn’t provided very often.”

Assigned reading

In Wisconsin, the curriculum is set and approved by the district’s elected school board. Assigned reading, is part of that curriculum.

A diverse literature class in the high school had assigned the book “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. The book is about a 16-year-old girl living in a poor neighborhood who attends a “fancy suburban prep school” who tries to find a balance between the different socioeconomic statuses and racial differences between her school and where she lives. At the same time, she witnesses her childhood friend fatally shot by a police officer and tries to figure out how to share her testimony and accounts of what happened.

Since its publishing in 2017, the book has been on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books each year except 2019, though it was still challenged that year. The reasons for being challenged are noted as: “profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message.”

At Amherst High School, no one officially challenged the book as defined by the ALA. However, a parent told 7 Investigates that another parent of a student in the class, who is a police officer, requested to share their side of the book’s story. The parent who spoke with 7 Investigates said that the request missed the point of the book, because police perspectives are shared in the book (from the officer in question as well as the girl’s uncle who is also a police officer) and because the police perspective is widely shared already.

The principal confirmed the scenario, saying “there are going to be controversial things they need to talk about, but it is definitely a safe space to discuss those topics and it’s good for students to be able to discuss them in a civil manner. And obviously, that’s a pretty touchy topic, but it wasn’t it, it was just a casual, you know ‘if you need anybody to come in and present where we come from and the things that we have to go through that would be great.’”

Library reading

At the beginning of 2021, an elementary school student had checked out the book “Love is Love” by Michael Genhart from the school’s library.

The author’s synopsis reads:

A boy confides in a friend that he doesn’t know what to say when he’s teased for having two dads, and when kids say that they’re not a real family. In their conversation, his friend helps him see how her family (with a mom and a dad) isn’t all that different from his: they both have parents who love them, and they both love their parents. And it’s love that makes a family.

Love Is Love shows that gay families are simply another kind of normal, and that all children value the love of family. This heartfelt dialogue provides a gentle way to discuss discrimination.

“If parents have trouble talking to their child about, you know, why are people different, the book does an excellent job of explaining what can be done in those situations and, and it’s okay to be different and the book just explains that,” Richie explained. “But the parent was not happy that their child check the book out.”

The parents wrote the school district that the content goes against their Christian beliefs. The parents accused the librarian of showing poor judgment, at best, and at worst, trying to indoctrinate students about liberal ideology as it relates to sexuality. They asked how they could prevent books related to gender identification and homosexuality from being sent home to families unless requested.

Another parent posted about the situation in a parent group on Facebook to let others know. The post exploded in comments, from those supporting the parents’ concerns to others sharing their own concerns about the possibility of the material being censored.

Those concerned about possible censorship noted not teaching children about accepting other people who may be different from themselves have led to marginalization, bullying, and mental health decline. One parent who wrote the district noted having literature from diverse perspectives is important, adding that they have friends whose family mirrors the family in the book and they want them to feel welcome at school.

In the Facebook group, those supporting the parents who first made the complaint said they did not think the book was appropriate for their young children. They said they planned to teach their children about love and acceptance of others, but they wanted to be able to do so in their own way and time.

Richie said the elementary school principal spoke with the parents of the student who took home the book, telling them this book would not qualify to be removed from the library. He and the school administration told several parents who reached out after the Facebook post that they could not require a permission slip for the book either because it would be considered censoring.

As part of one response, the elementary principal wrote:

“What I can legally allow is a parent to write a letter to me saying they are not allowing any book marked as LGBTQ+ (or other selected topics if they have a specific personal preference such as holiday if their religion does not celebrate specific holidays [sic]) book to be sent home with their child. With that letter give to me, I respond with we will do our absolute best, but only 20 books in our library of over 14,000 books are on this list. Adults may perceive books pertaining to this topic when they were not written by the author with that intent, so are not on the list of LGBTQ+ books. Books are selected and recommended by Elementary Librarians from all over the country. Teachers can request books to be purchased for our library. Students and parents have requested books to be purchased for our library. Every book selected must be age appropriate (sic). I say age appropriate, not personal preference appropriate. Everyone, you-me-everyone has their own personal preference for sure.”

On the same day, one parent had their children opted out of LGBTQ+ material, and another one suggested a book for the library as a resource to older children struggling with gender identities, specifically a book cautioning people from the transgender lifestyle.

Richie said the district would look at its policies as to how parents would be able to prevent their child from checking out a particular book from a policy standpoint, noting “it’s very difficult to control that. We don’t want to start censoring on (sic) what books, students can check out.”

“We respect all parents’ rights and, and what they believe in and their religious background,” Richie noted. “It’s, it’s up to each family, and that’s one of the reasons you don’t just pull a book like that from the library because some family may want to sit down and read that book with their child.”

Underwood said the schools do not have a right to restrict a child’s access to information unless there is a legitimate educational reason. Parents, however, have the right to restrict their child’s access to a subject matter or a particular book in a library. The school would have to work out a system, though in order to do that. She said once a student is 18-years-old, parents no longer have that right, but “anything between 8 and 18 is unclear.” She added that whether restricting access in that in-between age would be appropriate is the question.

“The other thing that, that sometimes communities want to do either in community libraries or in school libraries, is to keep track of everything that people read or checked out and make that available to parents and make that available to others.”

She said it is not quite unconstitutional to do that, but she urged people to question whether that is appropriate and a good decision for the educational environment or the community. If that information was given out to anyone other than the student’s parents, she stated it would be a clear violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The Tomorrow River School District is nowhere near the only school trying to manage these types of challenges. Klieforth shared another educator’s scenario in a different school district where a student had brought home the book “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Ordinary Terrible Things)” by Anastasia Higginbotham. He relayed the parents in this case also were not happy that it was brought home and had a lot of questions about why it was available.

The USSC decided decades ago about how schools can and cannot add or remove books from their libraries. She referenced the case from the ‘80s where a school district was removing books from its library due to the content. The court ruled students have a constitutional right to receive information, which she said is the other side of the right to free speech.

“If the school board was removing a book because they wanted to constrict the scope of knowledge, that that would be a violation of the student’s right to receive information and the school district couldn’t do that,” she stated.

She noted libraries do not have to take in and keep every book on their shelves forever because that would be impossible. School boards and districts can go through their formal process to add and remove books, but she reiterated it cannot be to restrict knowledge or racial animus. It must be based on legitimate educational reasons.

“If they believe it’s inappropriate for students to receive some information, like not putting books that are fairly specific about sex in an elementary school library, that’s a legitimate educational reason. It’s not appropriate for those that age of children, but they really have to think about it and it has to be a serious educational reason,” Underwood explained.

Optional reading

The disagreement over the LGBTQ+ books in the elementary school library impacted the school’s Read Across Amherst program. The program was the school’s version of Read Across America where teachers and community members come into elementary school classrooms to read books to students. This year’s theme was “Celebrating Diversity.”

Due to the pandemic, the school asked people to record themselves reading a book open to the camera. Then, elementary school teachers could choose between the videos to share with their classes. It was optional. The school created a list of books people could choose from, with the opportunity for people to request to share something off the list.

Prior to the list being made, the staff organizing the program took into account the arguments from the month before.

The PK-12 instructional and technology coach sent an email to the principal asking her to review the list.

“I’ve heard the Library has had some complaints recently about just how “diverse” the books their children are reading. We kept this in mind when compiling our list but it always helps to get another set of eyes:)”

The principal responded, “Hi. So I was just looking through it but I don’t know all of these books. Are any of them on the LGBTQ list? If so, they should not be included in a read aloud to kids. They SHOULD be an option for families and children, but should not be included as a read aloud. Are there any other potentially controversial books on the list? If so, could I please read them before we approve the list?”

The district’s library media specialist also on the email replied saying that none of the books on the RAA list were on the library’s LGBTQ titles list.

“I get both perspectives - why parents may not agree with LGBTQ because of religious reasons. But the other perspective: if we are talking about “celebrating diversity” (these are not required read-alouds, but an option for teachers to play), don’t we need to cover ALL areas in which a person can be diverse? It makes me feel like our message is: it is great to celebrate our ethnicity, race, differently-abled, or male/female gender roles - but not LGBTQ. You know? For instance, the book, Peanut Goes for the Gold, would be an awesome (and very gentle LGBTQ book).”

The principal responded, “My opinion is very different than my professional obligation...a teacher’s option to play is also very different than what is presented and expected of them. Please do not include any potentially controversial books in this list. Teachers will not have the time to preview all books prior to playing. They are assuming the books would follow approved curriculum for appropriate age levels. Although I think these books are written for the appropriate age level, the content of the books are not part of our approved curriculum for the age/grade level.”

She reiterated that in another email. Richie sent an email to the school board letting them know about the controversies over the LGBTQ books and that there may be parents addressing those concerns in the school board meeting that night.

“We have told the Librarian not to include any LGBTQ books for the Read Across America book list…” he wrote in part, adding that they could share more information during the closed session period.

“That kind of situation where, where the school or a public library says we aren’t going to deal with this particular idea or this particular group of people is very troubling,” Underwood said.

“You could write a policy that said that the book that that person was going to read had to be approved,” she listed. “You could write a policy that said the book that the person was going to read, had to come from a list that the school district had provided. You could do a lot of things to review, rather than censor.”

She explained school districts, students and parents have more flexibility whether to participate or opt-out with optional programming.

Wearing speech

Another scenario the district faced involved a student wearing a shirt that said “black rifles matter” to school Nov. 3, 2020. Klieforth said he was made aware of the concern while the student was in the cafeteria.

“Obviously, with the political aspects of that, that’s definitely going to offend some people, and it did,” he said.

Some people wanted the student to change the shirt.

Klieforth and Richie talked with the district’s attorney who cited several federal court precedences, telling them to let the student continue wearing the shirt.

One of the precedences the attorney was referencing was from a lawsuit out of another Wisconsin school in 2018, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A student at Markesan High School wore three shirts depicting guns and other weapons after the deadly shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The U.S. District Court judge cited several other similar cases to make his ruling, basing most of the decision off of the precedence set by Tinker V. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Supreme Court ruled that a high school could censor students’ speech only if it “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

In a similar case, Nuxoll ex rel. Nuxoll V. Indian Prairie School District #204, the court determined the types of reasonable facts a school could present which could reasonably lead a school to expect that kind of disruption include “that a particular type of student speech will lead to a decline in students’ test scores, an upsurge in truancy, or other symptoms of a sick school.”

The judge determined in the case against Markesan High School, that the school did not provide enough facts to support the censorship, thus violating the student’s right to freedom of expression.

Richie and Klieforth also sent these articles (article 1, article 2) to 7 Investigates as additional legal examples of what they were considering when figuring out how to handle the situation.

A parent with students in the district told 7 Investigates they interpreted the message of the shirt, which parallels the racial justice movement, Black Lives Matter, as a way to demean the lives of people who identify as Black.

However, not everyone interprets it that way. The phrase, “Black Rifles Matter,” first came into the larger public discourse in 2016 when a White gun rights advocate posted a handmade sign in his yard in Maine. He told the Associated Press the play on words with the Black Lives Matter movement was meant to make an impact. Several articles report that it offended visitors.

A similarly worded organization formed the same year. “Black Guns Matter,” is a group led by a Black gun advocate with the mission to educate people who identify as Black in the safe use of guns to reduce gun violence.

Klieforth said he recognized the concerns of those who wanted the shirt removed, but “these core precedents that are set we have to follow, right, wrong or indifferent, I mean we’re kind of bound by some of that.”

Klieforth spoke with the student wearing the shirt and the other students who had concerns, recognizing the student’s First Amendment right, but also acknowledging the impact the words had on other students.

“I think what kids need to realize, too, is that, especially today with cell phone cameras and social media -- some people in power have been finding this out -- that these digital pictures don’t go away,” Klieforth said trying to recall what he told the student. “If you have a picture, you know, it might be OK for you to say it and do it, but if that comes up later, even though it was OK at the time, or, you know, constitutionally you have that right, it can come back to burn you. So, it’s kind of a life lesson too that you really do need to watch what you say and do in those situations.”

Marquette Law School Professor Peter Rofes, who specializes in First Amendment issues, said there is a paradox in the for schools to censor student speech. The legal standard, again, is a reasonable forecast of material disruption.

“If a teacher, if a school, if a principal has to wait for disruption to an old before doing anything about it. Then of course that poses, sort of, not just a logical problem but it poses a very real practical problem on the ground. Teachers don’t have to wait for their classrooms to be materially disrupted before they are able to, if you will, do what they can to keep their classes from being disrupted same for principals, and the like,” Rofes explained.

He noted some people may want school leaders to wait to respond until after a disruption has occurred, but he reiterated that it poses a logical problem, “and I think it’s not a fair understanding of the law in this area either.”

The student dress code policy does not prevent students from wearing clothing that depicts weapons and Richie said they were not planning to change that. The most recent version, updated in May, states:

“Dress that is speech may still be prohibited if it is likely to cause a substantial disruption to the educational environment. This may include dress that includes the use of vulgarity, discriminatory language including racial or ethnic slurs, negative stereotypes, violence, or other communication when the clear intent is to invoke strong reactions in observers so as to impair the ability of teachers and/or students to engage in educational pursuit.

No protected speech may be prohibited on the basis of disagreement by District officials with the specific point of view expressed if the topic is otherwise permitted (e.g. permitting depictions of support for one political party, but prohibiting depictions of support for the other).”

Richie noted that they legally could not prohibit depictions of weapons on clothing because children are legally allowed to own weapons. Underwood and Rofes said the law does not stop schools from prohibiting things like depictions of weapons on clothing, but it must be done so fairly.

Speech that might advocate illegal behavior, like children using drugs or alcohol can be prohibited, which Underwood said may be what Richie was alluding to since children can legally own guns.

“There’s (sic), certainly, situations where you could prohibit the wearing of a T-shirt that would advocate guns in a school where there was a significant gun problem,” Underwood said. “That might, that might be harmful to students, or may be seen as inciting violence, further violence or gun violence. A situation where there has recently been a shooting in the school. Those, those would be things where, where you could prohibit that. You wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement about it.”

Underwood said schools can also prohibit harmful, disruptive speech that is harmful to both themselves and others, like sexual harassment for example; anything that might incite violence can be prohibited. She explained further that the question of whether or not the school and/or people within the school see a symbol or expression as sufficiently harassing to a student or group of students to the point of prohibiting it, can be different for each school and community.

“Schools have to set rules. They can’t go after a particular kind of expression,” Rofes began, “You can’t have a rule that says, If you wear a T-shirt that favors democrats, you will be punished, but one that favors republicans is perfectly fine. Of course not. Everyone sees that to be an uncomplicated constitutional problem for a school to try to set up.

He continued to give examples such as punishing only pro- or anti-LGBTQ+ expressions, a pro- or anti-war expression, alluding to some of the major USSC rulings involving black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

“A school, a school district needs to make sure its policies are both written fairly, but also enforced and administered, so as not to go after one type of expression, but leave the opposite expression undisciplined.”

Outside of the dress code policy, the district has several policies related to harassment, bullying, and the like. Richie said all staff work to not only treat everyone with respect and acceptance but also instill that in students.

“I hope that’s what our message is in every classroom that we treat each other with respect and kindness and it’s okay to be different, and we’re all here together and we’re one big family and we have to be able to respect each other, and we have over 1,000 people in this building,” Richie said. “And we’re here, you know, for a whole school year and it’s a place where everyone needs to feel safe, and we all, they all, all students need a place to go and need to be able to, they feel comfortable talking to staff members about any situation.”

A welcoming community

Walker, who is African American and one of the few staff members at the school who is not White, is not originally from Amherst. He said he sees Amherst as a welcoming community, but noted he got looks when he came into the community. He said he saw more friendly faces when he began his work at the school.

“I think I changed some of those unspoken feelings.”

He said being in a predominately White school and community, he does feel the pressure of trying to be perfect.

“Everybody knows who I am, I’m not gonna be, I’m not gonna be not noticed so I do have to walk a line. You know, I do feel that pressure of being the best. I do feel that pressure of being at every meeting, being, you know, appropriate being, you know, on time and just being the best self I can be.”

He said he never thought students saw him differently, just another teacher. He has made great connections with students that he says continue even after they leave his class. He told a story about how one of his former students ran into him at the supermarket.

“He yelled my name, he said ‘Mr. Walker!’ and he runs and he picks me up in his arms and says thank you for accepting me thank you for being there for me.”

He says he now feels at home in this community.

“I really love, you know, my staff, I love my principal, and, and I just see more of the acceptance here. And I think that, in itself, you know, moves the needle to me being more accepted.”

He has 20 years of experience teaching students. He said that has taught him that at the core, all students want to feel loved, respected, and accepted. He said the teachers and administration at the Tomorrow River School District work hard to do that.

“I think the biggest thing that I think our school tries to do is it tries to give the community, who’s our clientele, they try to give them the values of what the community wants, in our school,” Walker said. “But I think that the government side of our school, which is with you know through the Constitution is through, you know that we’re a government agency, we have to provide that, that balanced approach to our students. We got to allow our students to discover, who are you? You know, we can’t tell them who they are.”

Responding to the controversies of the last year, Walker said parents and students do not want to be indoctrinated, “who wants to be indoctrinated?” He explained making the learning experience individual for each student is what they try to do, both in their academic education and in letting the student grow into the adults they want to become.

“Some of the teachers that are in our school, are some of the (most) loving caring teachers I’ve been around. You know, they take students under their wing, you know they mentor them, they teach them, they love them. I mean, the amount of hugs when I first got here that I saw on the first day of school was like whoa, I’ve never experienced that.”

7 Investigates: A Need to be Heard continues Thursday with more stories about how Walker handles tough questions from students, and another scenario the school faced involving student artwork. Those pieces air on NewsChannel 7 at 6 and 10.

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