Burlington Area School District Board of Education members Peter Turke (foreground, left) and Barry Schmaling watch as protesters chant, yell and demand action on a policy addressing racism in schools at Monday’s meeting at Karcher Middle School. The meeting was adjourned after the protest erupted. (Photo by Mike Ramczyk)

Tensions boil over as protesters demand action on racism

By Mike Ramczyk

Correspondent

Much like September’s Burlington Area School District Board of Education meeting, people were allowed three minutes to speak out on recent racial incidents and potential anti-racism policies Monday night at Karcher Middle School.

But unlike September’s meeting at the Burlington High School gym – where the topic was a lesson on racism, protesting and Black Lives Matter taught by Cooper Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Melissa Statz – supporters for black and brown students weren’t offering only words.

They took action.

After roughly an hour of public comment, the packed room of approximately 100 people – including a large media contingent and members of the area’s American Civil Liberties Union organization – the meeting took a confrontational turn after BASD Superintendent Stephen Plank and Board President Roseanne Hahn moved on to another topic on the agenda.

Members of the group responded by demanding that the board address their concerns, which they poured out earlier in the meeting during emotionally charged public comments period.

Plank and Hahn both attempted to address the next agenda item to no avail, because opponents of the board’s handling of recent alleged racist incidents decided to disrupt the meeting.

As animated, angry members of the community and self-proclaimed Black Lives Matter movement supporters from area communities including Milwaukee approached the School Board members, who were spread out at three tables in a ‘U’ shape, chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “shut it down” overwhelmed the room, and the board decided to adjourn the meeting.

But the tension was only beginning.

Several men and women demanding justice in BASD walked up to board member Taylor Wishau, and others approached Plank and Hahn and yelled and cursed in search of answers.

Wishau was accompanied by a Burlington Police Department officer out a side exit, as a man closely followed and taunted Wishau.

Plank and Hahn also left with the help of a police escort. Several Burlington police officers and Racine County Sheriff’s deputies protected the Board members in the adjacent room.

Opposing sides of attendees clashed over the next 30 to 45 minutes, with loud chants and verbal exchanges in the middle school library.

A crowd of Black Lives Matter supporters – about 50 total – took to Karcher’s Robert Street entrance, filling the stairs and the driveway with chants as some officers remained in the building and others escorted people to their vehicles.

The group of roughly 50 BLM supporters remained in the driveway in front of Karcher, as several spoke of how they handled tonight’s meeting wasn’t the proper way to affect change.

Several leaders stressed how some lost their cool, and that’s not the way to help stop racism in Burlington.

“Fight them on your time, don’t fight them when you’re out here with us,” said a man to the group of BLM supporters.

After the meeting adjourned, as people were at odds still in the library, and the tension moved outside, Board member Peter Turke said he always felt safe despite clear animosity from the crowd.

“I did,” Turke said when asked if he felt safe. “When things got so disruptive that it was no longer productive, I don’t think we had a choice but to end the meeting. We’ll have to call another meeting to go through our monthly (agenda).”

“It’s a shame. I think Board members had a lot of things to say about our anti-racism policies. We have a long ways to go, that’s obvious. We’re working hard as a district. There’s a lot of passion here, and I understand it. We’re working hard as a Board and a district, including our anti-racism policies.”

“Everything is on the table right now – anything we can do to help the community come together,” Turke said. “Our first step is to come up with our policy.

“We have no tolerance for racism.”

      See Thursday’s Burlington Standard Press for the complete story, along with additional comments and photos from the meeting.