KENOSHA -- ACLU of Wisconsin officials on Tuesday, Feb. 19 issued a letter to Kenosha Unified School District officials amid controversy involving annual awards ceremonies for the Tremper High School cheerleading squad, and the health curriculum at Bradford High School. The ACLU said the incidents at the schools are part of a larger, pervasive culture of sexual harassment in the district.
The letter requests "prompt corrective action" following "complaints of pervasive gender discrimination, body shaming and victim blaming."
"The district needs to take action to make the schools a safe place for all students," said Asma Kadri Keeler, ACLU of Wisconsin staff attorney. "To say that there is no evidence of wrongdoing ignores the fact that testimonials are evidence of wrongdoing."
ACLU officials said they received reports from former school district employees and current parents and students, specifically at Tremper, to indicate the coaches hired by the district "engaged in sexual harassment, sex discrimination and body shaming at an annual awards event." This, in addition to reports that teachers at Bradford "are teaching students about sexual assault in a manner that inappropriately blames victims for their assaults."
Incidents related to Tremper High School cheerleading squad
According to the letter from the ACLU, reports came in that awards were being handed out at the annual Tremper High School cheerleading squad banquet at the end of each season that objectify the young women's bodies, including the "Big Boobie Award," the "String Bean Award" and the "Big Booty Judy Award." This was done in 2017, according to the letter. Additionally, the letter said during the 2017 banquet, "a member of the cheerleading squad with brown hair received a blonde wig because she was deemed a ditzy girl." The ACLU said parents indicated Tremper cheer coaches made sexual remarks about the girls and have harassed them, to the point where "students have left practice in tears, have felt shame about their bodies and have quit the squad due to comments made by the coaches."
The ACLU said these same controversial awards were handed out in 2018, and they received video of coaches handing out the "Big Booty Judy Award."
Parents and a coach reached out to the principal at Tremper after the 2018 awards ceremony, and through an open records request, the ACLU received an emails from April. Those emails showed a coach reached out to a cheer coach with concerns over the banquet and the awards' effect on the young women, and the cheer coach responded "I honestly don't feel that I need to explain myself about how we ran our banquet. Actually we have ran it this way for years and have never had a problem." A follow-up email from the principal to the cheer coaches revealed four complaints. The Tremper principal said he'd be launching an investigation.
The ACLU said there was "persistent follow up" from one parent, and the principal told that parent he "could find no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the coaches," and that the awards "were meant to be funny" and the coaches were "just joking around."
School district administrators were also notified, according to the ACLU, and an administrator met with a parent in April of 2018 and reiterated what the principal said.
A district human resources official met with the lead cheer coach in May of 2018, the ACLU said, and directed the coach to write apology letters to the girls who received the controversial awards, and to submit her resignation by mid-June. A follow-up memo from the principal to the superintendent in August indicated while the coach did send apology emails, she "declined to resign." The ACLU said the principal told the head coach "she was welcome back as co-coach" with her supposed replacement, and continued to directly coach the squad through the 2018-2019 school year.
The ACLU noted in their letter that "this awards event is not an isolated incident" and said "KUSD teachers and administrators have selectively enforced the dress code against female students in a manner that reinforces invidious stereotypes" -- sending the message to girls that "their worth lies in their physical appearance, not their academic or athletic abilities."
"When you have girls as young as 14 on this team, to say that calling someone up in front of hundreds of people and calling attention to her breasts, her buttocks, her frame and saying that's a joke is more than inappropriate. It's likely against the law," said Asma Kadri Keeler.
Incident related to health curriculum at Bradford High School
As for Bradford High School, the ACLU's letter said in December of 2018, students watched a movie as part of their health curriculum in which a college freshman was drugged and raped by a fraternity brother. They were then asked to fill out a worksheet that asked, "What could Melissa have done differently to have avoided her sexual assault? Provide at least four examples." The ACLU said this question "squarely places the blame for a sexual assault on the victim, rather than the perpetrator."
According to the ACLU, multiple parents submitted complaints to school district officials, and KUSD leaders stated "Bradford was asked to promptly remove this assignment from use." Administrators said they would take part in a comprehensive review of the health curriculum "to avoid future incidents." The ACLU noted to their knowledge, KUSD officials have not informed students and families about the results of that review, or any steps taken to remedy this.
The ACLU noted in their letter "as a recipient of federal funds, KUSD must comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972," which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment."
The ACLU called for "appropriate discipline" against staff, mandatory anti-harassment training for all employees, written guidelines for staff prohibiting remarks on appearance, students' bodies or sexuality, the release of KUSD's "comprehensive review" of the health curriculum and a new sex education curriculum that "emphasizes healthy relationships."
They asked for a response from the district by March 1.
A spokeswoman with the Kenosha Unified School District released this statement to FOX6 News:
"In regards to the Tremper incident, a clear expectation has been set that awards of this nature are not acceptable and are not to be given at Tremper cheerleading banquets going forward. As for the investigation, we are not at liberty to share personnel matters.
In regards to the Bradford incident, the district promptly launched an investigation and asked our schools to immediately remove the assignment from use. The findings of the investigation revealed that the curriculum is not the issue, but rather the resource utilized was the issue and this resource has since been removed as an option for use."