Conservative group threatens to sue MMSD over email that divided parents by race

Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 2:02 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 26, 2021 at 7:19 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A conservative legal group warned the Madison Metropolitan School District on Monday that it could face a lawsuit over an email sent to some Madison West families.

The message invited parents to participate in discussions on police behavior and then directing the families to virtual rooms based on their race.

The Wisconsin Institute for Liberty and Law (WILL) sent a letter to MMSD Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins saying Madison West’s “justifications for racial segregation are indistinguishable from the segregationists of the 1950s.”

The district defended itself Monday morning, describing the email as “poorly worded,” but based on “a well-established method” for allowing people who share a common identity, especially in situations where they feel their identity is being marginalized.

“Although their intent was to provide families an opportunity to process their emotions and feelings related to current events, the language used to organize the discussion was less than sensitive,” he said.

In its statement, WILL stated it did not oppose discussions on racial injustice and social unrest, however it argued “MMSD’s professed good intentions do not justify tactics that are plainly harmful, unconstitutional, and, by definition, racist.”

Dear Dr. Jenkins:

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) is a non-profit publicinterest law firm dedicated to the rule of law, individual liberty, constitutional government, and a robust civil society. On April 23, 2021, we became aware of an email originating from the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) directed to families of Madison West High School. The email invites parents to a conversation related to “all the police brutality and violence that is going on.” After asserting that it is “very necessary to have space for our families to discuss and process,” the email concludes with the following information:

This is at least the second time Madison West High School has employed racial segregation in the past ten months. In July 2020, and just before your time in the role of Superintendent, Madison West hosted “virtual discussion spaces” for students to discuss “the pain our community is feeling at this present moment.”

For that discussion, Madison West segregated students by establishing two separate Zoom calls: one for “white students” and one for “students of color.”

In a letter dated July 23, 2020 to Principal Karen Boran, we explained that racial segregation in education is illegal under federal law, specifically Title VI. Such discrimination in education is prohibited under state law as well. See Wis. Stat. § 106.58. We hoped that MMSD would have at least paused to consider whether such noncompliance would jeopardize future federal and state aid.

But today we would like to appeal to a higher principle. This country has a painful, tragic, and violent history of racial segregation. In 1896, the United States

Supreme Court established the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine. That doctrine, which permitted and endorsed racial segregation, ultimately relied upon

the belief that racial segregation was needed for “comfort,” “public peace,” and “good order.” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 550 (1896).

More than two generations later, defending school segregation, the proponents of “separate but equal” were still touting the supposed “benefits” of separating the races. For example, they argued that racial segregation benefitted Blacks because it afforded them a better “opportunity to participate,” made Blacks feel “inwardly more secure,” and actually “promote[d] cross-racial understanding.”

See generally Fisher v. Univ. of Texas at Austin, 570 U.S. 297, 323-24 (2013) (Thomas, J., concurring). Segregationists even argued that segregation was necessary to protect “black children from racist white students and teachers.” Id. at 329.

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.” These arguments are no different from those advanced by the proponents of Jim Crow.

Happily, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this poisonous belief system nearly 70 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education, concluding “that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Explaining this holding 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.” Fisher, 570 U.S. at 327.

Obviously, there is nothing improper about discussing racial issues and societal unrest. But segregation is never beneficial and never benign. MMSD’s professed good intentions do not justify tactics that are plainly harmful, unconstitutional, and, by definition, racist.

Our Nation rests upon certain foundational principles; chief among these is the principle of equality. Our Wisconsin Constitution begins with the solemn declaration that “[a]ll people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.” We know MMSD teaches this foundational principle of equality when it teaches students about the Greensboro sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Riders, Bloody Sunday, and the March on Washington.

What were these Civil Rights heroes fighting for? It is no mystery: the plain and simple hope that one day our children “will be judged not by the color of their skin,

but by the content of their character.”

In your new role as superintendent, which began just a few short months ago, we hope you will take this opportunity to re-dedicate MMSD to the principle of equality and to end all forms of racial segregation immediately.


WISCONSIN INSTITUTE FOR LAW & LIBERTY, INC. Rick Esenberg, President & General Counsel

District spokesperson Tim LeMonds told NBC15 News administrators have reached out to staff members at Madison West High School and they are discussing their next steps. He noted that the email only went to families who identify as families of color, multiracial or blended. He did not say if the remaining parents received a different version of the email.

Based on a screenshot posted on Reddit that was confirmed by the district to be of the email, the message read (emphasis theirs):

Hello West Families,

Looking back on all the police brutality and violence that is going on in our country and or communities and even after the verdict of Derek Chauvin and the murder of another young Black female, it is very necessary to have space for our families to discuss and process. The most important thing we can do for our students and their families is to continue our work to build strong, trusting relationships as we engage them through virtual and face-to-face learning. Only after we establish these strong connections can we expect students and families to openly share and dialog around such complex issues. We want to work together to help our students and families feel safe, discuss challenging issues productively, and think about how they can make positive changes in our community. Please join us tomorrow (Thursday, April 22nd) at 4:30pm to have these difficult but necessary conversations. Please see the Zoom Links below:

Zoom link for Parents of Color

Zoom link for White Parents

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