Darnisha Garbade
Darnisha Garbade, founder of the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, says the Burlington Area School District has not done enough to address racism within schools in the small western Racine County city. As Garbade became more vocal, her family began feeling unsafe; they moved out of town. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

After tensions erupted last year, a local anti-racism group says the school district is doing the bare minimum.

Darnisha Garbade, her husband, and their eight children moved to Burlington in 2016. They settled on the city for its cost of living, good schools, and low taxes. ”You know, the normal stuff that people look into when they want to buy a home,” Garbade said.

An interracial couple, Garbade and her husband have three white and five Black children, so they expected their Black children would experience a degree of discrimination when they first came to town—getting pulled over by police, or followed through a store. 

But they certainly did not expect things to become as severe as they did.

Their daughter was called the N-word regularly at school. White students put Confederate flags on their lockers. Latino students were harassed and asked if they had to climb over former President Donald Trump’s border wall to get to Burlington. (In a July statement, the school district said there is “no evidence to support the assertion about these behaviors.”)

Garbade, who is Black, said she repeatedly met with the school district to discuss the repeated instances of racism her children witnessed or experienced. Frustrated with a lack of real progress, she founded the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism in October 2019.

“I realized that they were just checking off boxes and had no real interest in creating a space that would be safe and equitable for children of color,” Garbade said.

The Burlington Area School District offices. (Photo via Burlington Area School District/Facebook)

Racial slurs hurled during a virtual class. A community in uproar over a lesson on Black Lives Matter. A school board meeting shut down by clashing protesters. An anti-racism group that says it is being ignored. An activist run out of town and forced to sell her home.

Over the past year, all of these instances and more have rocked the school district in Burlington, an 85.5%-white city with about 11,000 residents in western Racine County that has become a microcosm of the societal conversations on racism that have consumed the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. 

But unlike the events playing out on the national stage, these conversations are happening almost exclusively within Burlington’s public school system, which last year had a white student population of 79.7%, a Latino student population of 14.3%, and a Black student population of 1.5%, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Laura Bielefeldt, a parent in the school district and a member of the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, said she and her children had similar experiences to Garbade’s. 

“Burlington, the school district in particular, has been very huge on [saying] that those events didn’t actually take place and that that type of stuff doesn’t happen in Burlington,” said Bielefeldt, who is Latina and Native American. “The community, as well, has fed into that.”

Read: Serious Divides Apparent on Assembly Speaker’s Racial Disparities Task Force

Burlington Area School District Superintendent Stephen Plank, through the district spokesperson, declined an interview by UpNorthNews. The spokesperson deferred to the district’s webpage on equity, which contains previously issued statements and details several equity initiatives the district is undertaking.

“Our journey to become an anti-racist community has just begun,” the district’s most recent statement, from Nov. 19 reads. “Unfortunately, while we have been seeking impactful change, we have also had to deal with hate crimes within our community. We have repeated, and will say again, that the district is fully committed to serving as a learning community that is both anti-racist and healing-centered while rejecting all forms of racism on and off school grounds.”

National publicity forced district administration to publicly confront several racist incidents last year.

As NBC News first reported, tensions throughout the community boiled over shortly after Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha. In August 2020, Melissa Statz, a white fourth-grade teacher, gave her students unapproved materials on Black Lives Matter and systemic racism amid widespread protests calling for an end to police brutality. A parent group on Facebook labeled Statz a “rogue teacher” and demanded her firing, according to NBC. 

The school board announced at a September meeting that it would not fire Statz, saying in a statement that “a one-time use of curricular materials… is most certainly not a terminable offense.” Statz could not be reached for comment by email.

Four days after that statement, the district issued another—this time voicing strong support of Black Lives Matter.

“Black and Brown Lives Matter to the Burlington Area School District, the Chief of Police, the Burlington Coalition For Dismantling Racism and the National Equity Project,” the statement reads. “Valuing the lives of people of color is a basic human right and should not be treated as political or religious, just as valuing the lives of white people isn’t treated as being political or religious.”

Later that month children discovered the phrases “die [N-word] die” and “down with BLM” written in wood chips at an elementary school playground. Two weeks after that, someone spray-painted the N-word on the floor inside an under-construction school building. In October, an unknown person joined a virtual class and repeatedly said the racial slur before the teacher was able to remove the person from the classroom.

“The things that are happening there are things you heard about happening in like the 1950s,” Garbade said. “And that’s the climate that we’re dealing with in Burlington, and the people who are perpetuating these things, they think that it’s normal.”

The full spectrum of racial tensions within Burlington was on display in November when the board abruptly ended an out-of-control meeting amid a showdown between proponents of anti-racist policies  and opponents of the district’s anti-racist curriculum proposal. 

The board met again at the end of November and decided to create an anti-racism policy, which turned out to be only eight sentences added to the district’s existing anti-harassment policy. Garbade said her coalition submitted an eight-page policy, which the school board ignored in favor of the eight sentences it ultimately implemented.

“I believe they’re saying, ‘We did this, so we’ve done our part,’” Bielefeldt said.

Garbade turned to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which is now representing her in a complaint that says the school district “suppressed information about the racism in its schools, instead of acknowledging and remedying it.”

“I think what’s going to have to happen is they’re going to have to be legally held responsible,” Garbade said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to get through to them.”

As Garbade became more visible and vocal in Burlington, she said she and her Black children stopped feeling safe. She said she had received threats and even heard from several people that members of the far-right group the Proud Boys were in Burlington “specifically looking for” her. 

One man who spoke against Statz’s Black Lives Matter lesson at a school board meeting even showed up at Garbade’s daughter’s workplace, she said. The man did not confront Garbade’s daughter, but his mere presence made her feel unsafe, Garbade said.

The Garbades decided they could no longer stay. They put their house on the market earlier this month and accepted an offer about a week later. They’ve temporarily relocated until they can find a new home; they are not disclosing where they’re currently living out of concern for their safety.

But that doesn’t mean Garbade is abandoning the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism.

“We won’t stop fighting the fight in Burlington,” Garbade said.