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“We need a sense of urgency.” Stoughton school board grapples with racism among students


At its regular meeting Monday night, the Stoughton Area School District Board of Education, along with a handful of parents and students, expressed frustration with what they perceived to be the administration’s slow response to racism in the schools.

The discussion came nearly a week after Superintendent Tim Onsager sent an email to school families that district officials had “become aware of a racial incident at the high school.” Onsager retired at the end of last week, and Interim Superintendent Kate Ahlgren said at Monday’s board meeting that the incident was still under investigation and no details could be discussed.

Several students and parents have said it was related to a Snapchat video shared among students depicting a student using profane language while scraping a Black Lives Matter sticker off of his locker. Madison365 has not seen that video, but has seen a screen capture of a chat regarding rumors of racially motivated fights.

Stoughton High School junior Celeste Terrell Collins said that Snapchat video was just the culmination of weeks of harassment endured by Black and brown students.

“Kids of color were getting pushed into their lockers. There were kids making monkey noises at them,” she said.

Terrell Collins is part of a new student group called The Undivided that meets weekly and works to address racial inequities in the school district. The group also just launched its Instagram account yesterday.

At the board meeting, multiple people said racism among students has been tolerated far too long in Stoughton schools.

Angela Lawrence, whose 17-year-old son is Black, said he told her he would not recommend any student of color attend Stoughton schools. Oleka Parker said her son opted to enroll in the AVID-TOPS program at Madison LaFollette rather than stay in Stoughton past middle school.

“I know that our educators have been working to learn and address their own biases,” board member Mia Croyle said. “And a lot of that cultural shift is … it’s a big boat and the big boats turn slowly. There has been a ton of work going on. And I just have to say that as a parent of two black kids, it feels painfully slow. I can totally see that these things take time and those changes, but time isn’t just time. These are children’s lives. You know, I don’t want my son to get to be a junior or senior in high school and feel that way about Stoughton. Every year my family has the serious conversation: ‘Do we need to leave? Do we need to go find somewhere else where our kids feel welcome?’ I know that’s a conversation that’s happening in families with children of color across Stoughton.”

Parker noted that the district spent money and time several years ago to train staff – all staff, including teachers, bus drivers, food service workers and more – about racial equity, but that training hasn’t been implemented.

“It was really exciting and things have kind of not gone any further,” Parker said. “If you don’t continue to do things over and over and implement them and do the same thing over and over, it doesn’t become a habit. And I think that’s what’s happening with our district, unfortunately.”

Board member Yolibeth Rangel-FitzGibbon echoed that sentiment.

“I have been on the board for seven years. The last four, we have been working on training the staff. And my question is, when are we going to start seeing a change?” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “I know four years is probably a small amount of time. I do understand … things take time. We need a sense of urgency. When COVID came, we had the sense of urgency to move things, to go virtual. We need a sense of urgency for this issue. Yesterday, please.”

Croyle cited another example that got the community engaged with a sense of urgency.

“When there was a perceived need for a different turf in our football field, the community came and we found money and we found lots of staff time to devote to working all that out,” she said. “Nothing against the turf, that’s great, but this feels more urgent. This feels like more of an emergency to me. And somehow it feels like we just can’t get anybody to move.”

Parent Angela Lawrence addresses the Stoughton school board at its February 7 meeting. Photo by Robert Chappell.

Several board members noted that the elected body doesn’t have much say in the day-to-day operations of the schools.

“I’m really trying to think about, as a board that governs at a policy level, how do we move things? I’m constantly reminded we don’t do the operations of the district,” Croyle said.

Board member Joe Freye noted that the board has had “racial equity” as a standing agenda item for discussion for years, but it’s time to do more.

“We’ve talked about it long enough,” Freye said. “This indicates that we need this to be a standing committee and it needs to be a committee that’s focused only on (racial equity), only on what we’re gonna do in our schools. It needs to be a standing committee that has not only community members on it, but diverse members of the community on it. … I think if we get the right people talking, we can figure out what some of the right things are to do, how to start someplace.”

Terry Parisi, a former teacher in the nearby Oregon school district and a parent of Stoughton alumni, said she appreciated the board’s tone.

“I’m encouraged that the conversation went right away to, ‘this is urgent.’ This is important and it needs to start like yesterday,” she said. “They can’t enforce any of the rules that are going on inside the school, any of the programming, but they can certainly send a strong message that we can’t sweep any more under the rug. This moment in time, this is a teachable moment to hold some accountability.”

Lawrence expressed a similar sentiment.

“I think they’re very well intentioned,” she said of the board. “I think they have to act (but) I don’t know how much they can do.”