Once again, a high school in Woke Madison finds itself accused of racial segregation and its principal apologizing.
This week, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sent a letter to Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Carlton Jenkins, warning about the practices of Madison West High School. According to the Milwaukee-based public interest law firm, WILL’s letter follows a school district email inviting high school families to discuss “all the police brutality and violence that is going on.”
The school email asserts it is “very necessary to have space for our families to discuss and process.” It then provides two different Zoom links; one for parents “of color,” the other for white parents.
“Racial segregation is never beneficial or benign. It is our hope that the leadership at MMSD take this opportunity to commit the school district to the principle of equality and end all racial segregation immediately,” said Dan Lennington, WILL deputy counsel.
West High School Principal Karen Boran has issued an apology, stating the message “did not convey our intention in a manner that supports our core values.” She added that the wording in the communication “lacked clarity.” The school’s intention, Boran said, was to provide parents “affinity spaces” in which to safely discuss police brutality against people who aren’t white.
Last week’s invitation marks the second time in the past year that WILL has sent the school district a warning letter alleging segregation in education. Madison West hosted “virtual discussion spaces” for students and staff last summer to “process the pain our community is feeling at this present moment” and “work towards being an anti-racist community.” It provided links for two separate Zoom calls — one for white students and one for nonwhite students.
“Please join the Zoom space where you most closely identify,” an email obtained by WILL advised. The purpose of the separate but equal sessions was to “maximize [students’] level of emotional safety and security,” according to the email.
The law firm pointed out that West’s broad classification of the high school’s student body into “white students” and “students of color” only served to alienate students who do not fit neatly into the racial categories. That criticism applies to the recent Zoom sessions for parents.
In a warning letter sent on Jul. 23, WILL explained to Boran that racial segregation is illegal under federal law, specifically Title V. It’s prohibited under state law as well. West High School’s principal did not publicly apologize for that incident. The school used the same affinity group model. Tim LeMonds, the school district’s public information officer at the time, said no student was told which group to attend, and attendance was not mandatory.
“MMSD is committed to holding students at the center, and counter to WILL’s narratives, this is an effort to provide a safe space for students to have conversations they feel they need, and not centered on what adults want,” the spokesman said in July.
The district offered a similar response to the latest allegations of racial segregation — but this time its statement comes with an apology. It is not clear, however, whether the high school will end its practice of separating students and families for difficult conversations on race.
“We hoped that (Madison Metropolitan School District) would have at least paused to consider whether such noncompliance would jeopardize future federal and state aid,” Lennington wrote in WILL’s most recent communication to the school district.
Lennington said the law firm is asking the district and West’s principal to appeal to a “higher principle.” He noted the nation’s “painful, tragic, and violent history of racial segregation. The Supreme Court’s infamous “separate but equal” doctrine of 1896 which endorsed racial segregation as it relied on the belief it was needed for “comfort,” “public peace,” and “good order.”
More than two generations later, proponents of “separate but equal” vehemently defended school segregation in the face of the civil rights movement. Segregationists even argued that segregation was necessary to protect “black children from racist white students and teachers,” Lennington noted in the letter. He wrote that Madison West’s justifications for racial segregation are “indistinguishable from the segregationists of the 1950s.”
“In that July 2020 email, Madison West justified separation of the participants by race because it supposedly provided a ‘level of emotional safety and security,’ space for students and staff to ‘process the pain our community is feeling,’ and an opportunity to ‘develop individual and group plans of action to make our physical and virtual spaces safe,'” the letter states. “These arguments are no different from those advanced by the proponents of Jim Crow.”
Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the separate but equal doctrine in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Decades later, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the “Constitution does not pander to faddish theories about whether race mixing is in the public interest. The Equal Protection Clause strips States of all authority to use race as a factor in providing education.”
While there is of course nothing improper about discussing racial issues and societal unrest, Lennington said there is much inherently wrong with segregating people, adding, “MMSD’s professed good intentions do not justify tactics that are plainly harmful, unconstitutional, and, by definition, racist.”
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