This article is being reprinted due to a production error that occurred in the Sept. 30 edition of the Waunakee Tribune.
Several students reported this week that they had experienced harassment and discrimination in Waunakee schools, attesting to the fact that bias is more prevalent than many community members have previously claimed.
“A lot of adults in the community think that everything in Waunakee is fine, and I’ve had peers tell me that Waunakee isn’t racist,” junior Madysen Punsel said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. And throughout my elementary, middle- and high-school years, I’ve experienced racism.”
Punsel was one of seven students to speak at a community-engagement meeting held at the high school Monday night, sharing some of the experiences they had had during their K-12 education.
The Sept. 27 meeting was the first of four community-engagement sessions to be held this school year.
Superintendent Randy Guttenberg started the meeting with a presentation and explained that its purpose was to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts taking place in the district.
Guttenberg said equity and access to opportunities has been a topic within the educational realm for some time, and a priority for Waunakee school officials the past 4-5 years. He listed some of the measures the district had taken to make programs, information and other resources more accessible to students and their families.
Guttenberg said translation and interpretation services have improved access to information for the district’s 129 English Language Learners, while a fee-waiver policy and the 2017 creation of the Student Financial Assistance Fund has given students in economically disadvantaged families the opportunity to participate in co-curricular activities.
Partnerships with the Dane County Equity Consortium, the National Equity Project, the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), Nehemiah, CESA 2 and the Ho-Chunk Nation have focused on addressing equity and inclusion in the district. Guttenberg said much of the work to improve those areas had been in response to student concerns.
Feedback received during the comments section of the meeting suggested that school officials could be doing more.
Waunakee High School graduate Izabella Moore said she came to the district in fourth grade. Throughout her nine years in the school system, she was regularly subjected to racial slurs.
“I’ve been called the N-word on multiple occasions,” Moore said, adding that staff is often unresponsive to reports of bias-related incidents. “And I understand that teachers don’t know what to do. But this is what needs to get learned. This is what teachers need to learn, and this is what students need to learn.”
Punsel agreed, noting that a lot of adults refuse to acknowledge that racism is a problem in the community. She said that creates an issue when students are counting on them to address it.
“We as students don’t really have a whole lot of power enforcing certain rules. And if feels like, a lot of the time, we’re unheard because some people just turn a blind eye to it,” Punsel said. “We’re just asking to be treated the same as everyone else.”
Finding a solution
Waunakee school board members created a DEI committee last year to review its policies and practices, and form recommendations that could improve equity and inclusion within the schools. The committee’s recommendations were recently submitted to the school board for consideration.
Since then, community members have criticized the recommendations as being non merit-based and unfair to students and staff. One community member at the meeting questioned whether minority teachers would be hired at a higher rate of pay than their white peers. Guttenberg confirmed that staff would be receive equal pay, regardless of race and gender.
Others have claimed that the recommendations are politically motivated.
Waunakee students at the meeting said the issues not political, though. Sophomore Elenor Lake said she just wants community members to recognize the real issues that go on in Waunakee High School.
“There’s been a lot of incidents just regarding race,” Lake said. “This past week, I heard someone say the N-word and I told them that it’s not okay to say. And they proceeded to say, ‘Well I have a friend that’s Black, and they don’t care. So it doesn’t matter.’ So I just wanted to be the voice for the people that aren’t able to come up here and let everybody know that these things do go on, and they affect just about everyone.”
School-board member Brian Hoefer said the district will continue to look at DEI-related issues, as well as the membership of its DEI committee in upcoming discussions.
Monday night's meeting can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0718OAAYns.