A racist post on Facebook and a quiet expletive picked up on a hot mic each raise issues of respect.
Members of two Wisconsin school boards are under scrutiny after one member in Shawano made a racist joke about George Floyd on Facebook and someone on the Waukesha School Board may have been the person heard quietly calling a resident an “asshole” at last week’s meeting.
The offending member of Shawano’s school board has been identified and condemned by his fellow board members, but it is unclear who was heard muttering the expletive on a hot mic in Waukesha.
Mart Grams, a member of the Shawano School Board, was condemned by his fellow board members on Sunday after he posted a Facebook comment about Floyd, the unarmed Black man murdered in May by Minneapolis police.
Grams wrote, “You know George Floyd is drug free for 2 months.”
In a statement to WBAY in Green Bay, Grams said people angered by his comment are part of “a poorly trained generation who cannot deal with the slightest contradiction to what the (sic) are told.”
In Waukesha, the profanity was uttered by an unknown person after Ben Strong, a local organizer and activist, spoke against continued use of police in Waukesha schools. A microphone picked up the cuss and broadcasted it over the district’s livestream of the meeting, but the camera was not focused on the board members at the time, so it is unclear who said it.
Strong attended the meeting along with about thirty alumni to demand a more diverse and equitable school district, condemn a recent visit from Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and urge the School Board to cut ties with the Waukesha Police Department in line with other Wisconsin districts like Milwaukee and Madison in the wake of the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by Floyd’s death.
Dr. James Sebert, who has been superintendent of the School District of Waukesha for about a month, said he and School Board President Joseph Como, Jr. are investigating the incident. Como could not be reached by phone or email Monday morning.
“We don’t know who said it, whether it was a board member or someone else, and we are still working to try to figure that out,” Sebert said.
Asked whether he was implying a board member may not have made the comment, Sebert said, “That’s the challenge — figuring out where the comment originated.” He declined to say what sort of punishment a board member may receive if they are found to have been the one who swore at Strong.
Sebert said microphones are only in front of each board member and at the public-comment podium.
“It’s just kind of funny,” Strong said in a phone interview Monday morning. “It really isn’t that big of a deal.”
Strong himself said he doesn’t think a board member made the comment. He said he has “a pretty good idea of who it might be, but I don’t want to name any names until I’m 100 percent sure.”
“This is an egregious instance of hypocrisy considering the Board’s policy for mutual respect during public commentary which President Como Jr. highlighted at the start of the meeting, prohibiting ‘inappropriate language in any manner,’“ the group said. “This exemplifies an inability to foster a safe environment for community voices at a Board meeting.”
The district has not issued a formal response to the group’s original letter, which has now garnered nearly 1,400 signatures. The alumni group says that Sebert and Como have yet to have any sort of communication with the group’s representatives, as have four other school board members.
Sebert told UpNorthNews that he will be sitting in on a meeting with the group “within the next week or two.”
Strong said he does not want people to get distracted by the spectacle that sometimes comes with local politics. Instead, he said people should use his experience with the Waukesha School Board as a lesson.
“Care more about local politics in every regard,” Strong urged. “Something like less than 50 percent of people vote for school board members when it comes election time…. Those principles and values will be imposed onto those children, so whatever you believe — whatever principles and values you have — you should find in an elected official in every capacity, from alderman to school board officials, to the mayor, to any other elected position.”