The Waukesha school district is facing one potential lawsuit on top of another. The district is already dealing with a lawsuit for not protecting students from COVID-19. Now it may be stepping on First Amendment, free speech rights as well.

A grassroots organization called the Alliance for Education in Waukesha is organizing a petition against the superintendent and beginning protests before the recent school board meetings, sending speakers to the podium to ask the board to change the superintendent’s policies.

This summer Waukesha Superintendent James Sebert suspended staff diversity training and the district’s equity leadership team. Black Lives Matter as well as Thin Blue Line signs supporting police were ordered to be taken down. But Sebert did not stop there. All signs supporting gay rights and LGBTQ signs had to come down, too, even rainbow signs recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction with the words, “Safe Place.” And if they were not taken down, they were torn down.

The student gay-straight alliance was finally allowed to put up signs if they were black and white — no rainbow colors. Yet every other school organization was allowed to post multi-colored signs throughout the building.

A student pro-life organization has standing permission to post “Celebrate Life” posters in the buildings. The question being asked this year is whether this group will be allowed to continue posting or will they also be part of the no political signage mandate.

None of the actions taken by the superintendent were done with the direct permission of the school board. The superintendent has taken his broad authority to ban political signage within the schools. Previously that meant disallowing promotion of a candidate for an elected office or a political party. Now the superintendent is using that provision to ban any discussion on any controversial issue. How that will play out on issues such as the environment, immigration, or a host of other issues is anybody’s guess.

At the October 14 board meeting, 30 speakers stated their objections to Sebert’s sign policy. Only six citizens supported the superintendent. Some speakers still referred to the lack of masks and social distancing, but the majority were against the superintendent banning posters and the lack of support for diversity in the schools.

All the speakers on both sides of the issue identified themselves as members of the Waukesha community. Over half the speakers supporting LGBTQ free speech issues were high school students. Some stated they were straight but were there in support of their fellow students.

The handful of speakers supporting the superintendent said that the schools needed to get back to the academic standard and forget these diversity issues. Only one speaker directed his remarks against the LGBTQ issues stating they were against God’s will.

The first speaker was a white woman, a teacher and mother of two Black children. She remembers her 5-year-old being called the “N” word in her presence. Those who believe that racism is not a major issue in Waukesha schools are far removed from the reality of racism, she said.

The second speaker was David Simmons, an Episcopal priest in Waukesha, there to support his gay daughter who attends Waukesha West High School. He also spoke with the Examiner in a separate interview. “My daughter was a victim of a bullying incident a couple of weeks ago,” he said. The incident took place in the school cafeteria and was reported to school officials. He also noted that in 2018-2019, Waukesha schools reported that were no acts of discrimination that school year, something he clearly doubts.

“When you start taking down those signs of support, you basically disappear that community. Somebody is OK to bully, OK to intimidate.” Simmons believes that bullying in Waukesha schools is clearly rising. Students who do not see a rainbow “Safe Place” sign in a classroom may not know if a teacher can be trusted.

Simmons did not think that the LGBTQ community was the superintendent’s main target. “LGBTQ is collateral damage,’ said Simmons. “The real intention is to get the Black Lives Matter signs down. And in order to do that, they had to make a much more expansive policy in order to cover that they are not racist about it.”

One unnamed teacher stated that the real issue is the Critical Race Theory bill before the state Legislature. The superintendent is just trying to get ahead of the school board. “That is what he has told people in different meetings.”

“Teachers are afraid for their employment if they speak up on this issue,” said Simmons.

One teacher who was interviewed for this story asked that her name not be used. Teachers are afraid to wear rainbow pins on their clothing; some are being called into the office by the administration. Teachers will not allow students to discuss social issues in the classrooms. Waukesha teachers are an affiliate of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), which is looking into the situation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also stated that it may become involved.

“I know teachers in different school districts who told me that at one point, they had thought about applying for Waukesha,” said Simmons, “but now they simply are not willing to serve in the district because they never know what the school board is going to do next. We are going to start running into a recruitment problem.” At this point, such thinking is pure speculation, but a district in turmoil may not be seen as the most desirable place to teach.

At the end of the October 14 school board meeting, school board member Greg Deets asked for the following information:

  1. To receive a report from Dr. Sebert regarding our signage issue for the November full board meeting.
  2. Whose inputs were used to make this decision?
  3. Why was this decision made?
  4. What criteria was used to determine if a sign will be banned or not?
  5. How is it going so far, and what has been your feedback?
  6. Any next steps that you are forecasting or considering this time?

During the public comment period near the beginning of the meeting, the board members listened politely, smiled, and moved on with the agenda. Neither the superintendent nor other board members commented on what they heard from the citizens until, at the end of the meeting, Deets spoke up to ask his questions.

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