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Madison West divides parents based on race for police brutality conversations

The email offered families a virtual space to discuss policing and pointed them to Zoom links divided by race.
Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 10:27 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 26, 2021 at 5:12 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A new statement from Madison West High School sheds more light on a controversial email that offered discussion groups about “all the police brutality and violence that is going on” divided between “Parents of Color” and “White Parents.”

The Madison Metropolitan School District had earlier acknowledged the letter was poorly worded, and in a Monday afternoon letter Principal Karen Boran echoed that statement, saying “[u]nfortunately, our wording in the communication we sent lacked clarity.”

MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds previously told NBC15 News the email in question only went to those who identified as families of color, multiracial, or blended. Neither the district nor Boran have clarified if any emails about similar discussions were sent to the remaining parents.

Framed in the light of “all the police brutality and violence that is going on” and as a response to the Derek Chauvin verdict and “the murder of another young Black female,” an apparent reference to the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, the letter to Madison West families proposed the separate conversations to offer a chance for them to process the events.

It argued the conversations would help “build strong, trusting relationships” necessary for “students and families to openly share and dialog around such complex issues.” An image of the email showed a pair of Zoom links for sessions that were scheduled for last Thursday, dividing the parents by race. They were labeled:

  • Zoom link for Parents of Color
  • Zoom link for White Parents

Boran explained Madison West staff members had created a space for families of color to discuss events happening locally and across the country as well as a space for white parents with children of color, indicating those were the spaces referenced in the email. She added that the spaces were requested by students, families, and staff of color who were frustrated about “having to justify their experiences and perspectives.”

“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,” MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds said.

Both Boran and LeMonds described the groups created by Madison West staff members as “affinity spaces,” which the latter described as “a well established method” for allowing people who share a common identity to connect, especially in situations where they feel their identity is being marginalized.

Boran noted that many corporations, school districts, and other organizations use such spaces, saying they offer an increased sense of belonging to those included.

LeMonds also shared three families attended the April 22 meetings.

West High School parent Joanna Ivey said when she received the email, she did not think twice about having separate groups. She said she felt the separate spaces were appropriate.

“I think these conversations are often dominated by white voices, and I think providing a separate space for a conversation for Black students and parents of Black students is not only appropriate, but I think it’s really good,” Ivey explained.

Ivey has a black son who is a junior at West High School as well as a white son who is a recent West graduate. Ivey said she regularly receives emails geared specifically towards students of color for her younger son, emails she did not receive when her older white son attended the school.

Ivey added she hopes the next step in these conversations is to bring these groups together, but said the decision to separate them in the first phase was appropriate.

“I’ve always tried to be a really good listener to my black friends and to voices in the community and to learn from them what their experiences have been like, and it really helps me be a better parent,” she said.

Dividing the groups based on race, however, prompted a warning of potential legal action from an activist conservative group. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sent MMSD Superintendent Carlton Jenkins a letter comparing such divisions to Jim Crow-era policies, writing that the school’s “justifications for racial segregation are indistinguishable from the segregationists of the 1950s.”

In her statement, Boran remained committed to continuing with the policy, saying that it will continue to create safe spaces for students and families to have these types of discussions.

“While we apologize for any confusion our messaging caused, West will continue to center this necessary anti-racist work around the voices and needs of our students, families, and staff members of color,” she said.

NBC15 repeatedly asked MMSD on Monday to interview school officials on-camera, specifically asking to speak with Superintendent Carlton Jenkins, principal Karen Boran or Director of Equity, Partnership and Engagement Nichelle Nichols. All three were unavailable, and the district referred NBC15 to the two statements from LeMonds and Boran.

NBC15 also asked MMSD what the process of approving the email was, and who was responsible for writing and sending it. NBC15 is working to find those answers and whether any district polices were violated in a way that could result in disciplinary action.

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

Full statement from Madison Metropolitan School District to NBC15 News:

MMSD district office has been made aware of this and is in contact with West staff to address the message and develop further response.

The message you are referring to was, unfortunately, a poorly worded message sent by West staff to only West families who identify as families of color, multiracial or blended, to promote the school’s effort to provide them a virtual discussion space and support, utilizing the Affinity Group model. 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.

The Affinity Group model is a well established method to provide opportunity for people who share a common identity to connect with other people who share aspects of their identity, especially in a situation where they feel their identity is marginalized.

Tim LeMonds Public Information Office MMSD

Full statement from Madison West High School principal Karen Boran:

Last week, a communication was sent to West families who identify as families of color, multiracial, or blended, to promote an effort to provide families with a facilitated space for processing current events in the news and our nation. Unfortunately, this message did not convey our intention in a manner that supports our core values.

The communication involved offering families access to “affinity spaces”, which are often offered as supportive places for people with shared identities or common experiences to come together. Affinity spaces are held in many corporations, school districts, higher education entities, and other organizations. These spaces are often valued for increasing a sense of belonging for those who choose to participate.

At West, we are committed to being an intentionally anti-racist school community that is inclusive, student-centered, and uplifting. We are working diligently to value the diverse identities of all our students and families. Therefore, a diverse team of West staff members created a space for families of color to discuss the events which were happening in the country and our communities. We also created a space for white parents who have children of color. Unfortunately, our wording in the communication we sent lacked clarity.

Affinity spaces were specifically requested by students, families, and staff of color during previous discussions where they expressed frustration having to justify their experiences and perspectives. While we apologize for any confusion our messaging caused, West will continue to center this necessary anti-racist work around the voices and needs of our students, families, and staff members of color.

This is an extraordinarily challenging time in our nation, and we are committed to creating a safe space for our students and families to have discussions about current events. We are here to support you, and would like to encourage you to reach out to your student’s principal or the West Student Services department for additional resources or support. https://west.madison.k12.wi.us/contact-us

Karen Boran, West High School principal

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