Kiel Police Dept
(Photo via Kiel Police Department Facebook page)

The tight-knit community of 3,900 is confused, concerned, and caught up in cultural crosscurrents.

On May 12th, a conservative law firm demanded that the Kiel Area School District drop its investigation into a complaint against three eighth-grade students accused of calling a classmate by the wrong pronouns. The district didn’t. It couldn’t. 

Then the anonymous threats started.

“Vulgar, hateful, and disturbing” threats spilled over into the following week, causing the Kiel administrators to reschedule a school board meeting over safety concerns. On May 23, the district received its first emailed bomb threat. Kiel police said multiple local news outlets received an alert that bombs were being placed at the local middle school. They evacuated all classrooms in the district and found nothing.

But the threats continued. On May 24. May 26. May 27. May 31. June 1. And on June 2.

The emailed threats have canceled everything from board meetings and in-person classes to local concerts and the town’s Memorial Day parade in the small community on the Manitowoc-Calumet county line.

The latest threat was the biggest yet: targeting all public and private schools, roads, utility stations, city buildings, stores, the police department, and the water treatment plant.

The City of Kiel’s Emergency Management Team is now working with local, state, and federal authorities to find the person, or people, behind these threats—all prompted by an investigation into the possible harassment of a student for their gender identity.

In March, the school district received notice of the complaint, tied to a federal statute (Title IX) that prohibits gender discrimination. The school district was obligated to begin looking into the allegation. People outside the district began to misinterpret the action as meaning the boys were already being disciplined, sued, or simply targeted inappropriately.

On May 12, the district received the demand to drop the investigation in the form of a letter from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL)—the well-funded right-wing legal group that has also gone to court to fight the implementation of COVID safeguards, defend gerrymandered political maps, and force a rushed and botched wolf season.

After the district refused, WILL and the parents of the three students took their arguments to right-wing media, and various threats of violence followed as the matter became a cause célèbre for people who liken respect for gender identity to a “woke mob.”

The contempt toward people who identify as trans had also been seen in 2016, according to a story in the Appleton Post Crescent, when a transgender student requested a unisex bathroom. 

Prior to April’s school board election, 70 school staff members signed a letter to the editor about “accusations and inaccuracies” related to charges that teachers were “indoctrinating” children and using pornography in their lessons. 

“We are teachers that simply want to teach,” the letter said. “We want to connect with your kids because that’s good teaching, not because we have some hidden agenda. You know us—we are local, we are parents, our kids are your kids’ teammates. We are your kids’ teachers and coaches. We are your friends, your customers, your neighbors. We love your children and would never hurt them. To suggest otherwise is heartbreaking.”

Despite the pleas, according to the Post Crescent, all three school board incumbents were ousted by voters who earlier had been upset about COVID facemask safeguards. 

And as the anonymous threats linger in the community, it is still to be determined if a student failing to call another student by their preferred pronouns constitutes legally defined harassment, bullying, or is protected speech.

“It’s dark in our city right now, but each of us can be the light in our own way,” Kiel Police Chief Dave Funkhouser begged in a Facebook post

“Please think before you speak and before you type. Our world is dark enough. Let’s bring some light to it.”

UpNorthNews reporter Christina Lorey contributed to this report.