Burlington Area School District offices
The Burlington Area School District offices. The Department of Public Instruction found the school district has failed to address a "severe, pervasive, and persistent" racist environment in the local schools. (Photo via Burlington Area School District/Facebook)

A school district is put on notice, years after a mother first started fighting racism in the community.

The Burlington Area School District (BASD) knew “severe, pervasive, and persistent” racism existed in its schools and failed to adequately address it, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) said in a ruling released Monday.

The determination came four months after local mother Darnisha Garbade and the ACLU of Wisconsin filed a complaint with DPI against BASD, and eight months after a teacher was subject to public backlash for teaching an unapproved lesson on the Black Lives Matter movement amid protests over the Jacob Blake police shooting in nearby Kenosha.

DPI found there were at least 19 racist incidents in Burlington schools between 2016 and 2020, that the district failed to report any nondiscrimination complaints to DPI from 2016-19, and that there was “no evidence in the record” that many incidents “were ever investigated at all.”  

DPI gave BASD 30 days to submit a corrective action plan.

“These were not just a whole bunch of isolated incidents,” Garbade said.

Garbade, a Black woman whose children experienced repeated racist incidents in BASD starting when the family first moved to town in 2016, said the ruling gave her feelings of vindication and affirmation. She learned of DPI’s decision on Friday while out shopping.

“I was crying in the store, like tears of joy,” Garbade said, adding that she had “no idea” which way the ruling might go.

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)

She formed the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism in 2019 out of dissatisfaction with the way the district handled the incidents involving her children. Garbade has since pulled her kids out of the district, and she and her family were forced to leave town earlier this year after they received threats.

“The sheer number of incidents of racial harassment across Burlington schools is deeply disturbing and shows that there is a pervasive, district-wide problem with racism going unaddressed, something that the DPI concluded in its ruling today as well,” attorney Elisabeth Lambert, an Equal Justice Works fellow with the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a statement.

In its own statement, BASD acknowledged DPI’s findings and said it “will be intentional and thoughtful” as it fights racism within the schools. 

“It has been uncomfortable to realize that even as we try our best—every day for every student—we need to do better,” the district said.

Superintendent Stephen Plank in a video message called the ruling “difficult to read” and said “we must create an environment where every student believes like they can succeed.” 

Plank did not explicitly apologize for the racist environment in the district and instead said “we most certainly regret leaving anyone impacted or feeling” like they were discriminated against.

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On a web page dedicated to equity, BASD has outlined several equity initiatives it is undertaking, such as performing multiple staff trainings throughout the past school year, hosting community events, and working with the National Equity Project

“These actions are important first steps to addressing the racially hostile environment at BASD,” DPI wrote in its ruling, “but BASD is under a continuing obligation to ensure these measures are reasonably calculated to prevent the recurrence of racial harassment throughout the district.”

Moving forward, Garbade said she wants the district to perform a climate survey, give staff-wide equity training, include people of color in equity discussions, provide counseling for students who are victims of racist incidents, adopt an equitable learning curriculum, and to implement a stronger anti-racism policy in the district.

The Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism will remain active in holding the district accountable, Garbade said, and she encouraged other parents whose children have been victimized to speak out.

“We know what they’re going through, and I want them to know that they’re not alone,” she said. “I also want families of color to know to hang in there, even when it gets tough.”