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'Deflecting responsibility': ACLU appeals response of CFAUSD to administrative complaint

From the COLLECTION: Developments in ACLU, Cultivative Coalition complaint vs Chippewa Falls district series
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The ACLU of Wisconsin filed an appeal Thursday with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on behalf of the Cultivative Coalition, an organization of current and former students of the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District, who experienced persistent and severe discriminatory harassment at school.

A troubling dialogue within the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District continues as the response to its internal investigation is not met with praise.

The ACLU of Wisconsin has filed an appeal with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on behalf of the Cultivative Coalition, an organization of current and former students of the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District who experienced persistent and severe discriminatory harassment at school.

The appeal, filed last Thursday, challenges the district’s alleged perfunctory and evasive handling of the pupil discrimination complaint that the ACLU filed earlier this year on behalf of the Coalition.

Under Wisconsin law, students experiencing discrimination must first work through a complaint and investigation process at the school district level before presenting their claims to DPI. Other ACLU of Wisconsin school discrimination clients have received adverse decisions at the district level before being vindicated by DPI.

The Chippewa Falls investigation was conducted by an attorney from the law firm that represents the district. The decision was brief, did not explain the legal standards the investigator applied, and discredited without explanation the extensive evidence provided by the complainants, including documents, videos, and extensive witness interviews.

Based on this information, the investigator concluded that the complaint was deficient under applicable law, finding that, “There is no evidence to conclude that the District has created or is responsible for a hostile environment on the basis of one’s race, sex, or sexual orientation that is sufficiently severe, pervasive or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by the District.”

The response explaining the findings by the district was brief, which those who filed the complaint felt was a poor handling of the situation.

“The district’s response to this complaint is entirely consistent with its longstanding practice of deflecting responsibility and minimizing the concerns of students facing discriminatory harassment,” said Elisabeth Lambert, Equal Justice Works fellow with the ACLU of Wisconsin and the attorney on the case. “Still, we’re excited and proud to have reached this stage. We’ve made it through the part of the process that the district controls, and now, we’ve assembled an extensive, compelling body of evidence and are looking forward to presenting it to DPI.”

The complaint was made on behalf of Cultivative Coalition, a group of former Chippewa Falls high school students who are now fighting for equality and fairness within the district.

“I am not surprised with the district’s decision given that I (and many others) had previously and on multiple occasions shared our traumatic experiences with the school and no meaningful action was taken to create a safer and more equitable environment for all students,” said Hazel Behling, a co-complainant and member of the Cultivative Coalition.

“While we are disappointed in the decision by the district, we are confident that our appeal to DPI will prove what we have known all along: that the district has and continues to tolerate a hostile and unsafe environment for marginalized students. Regardless, the Cultivative Coalition and I will continue to advocate for those whose voices and concerns are often overlooked.”

“After sharing my trauma time and time again with the school district and seeing their initial response, it is not surprising that their investigation found no wrongdoing,” co-complainant and Cultivative Coalition member Casaiya Keyser said. “It’s hard to hear, but I’m confident that our voices will be heard once we file our appeal with DPI. I, along with the Cultivative Coalition, will continue to advocate for the students and families in this community.”

The complaint against the CFAUSD by the Cultivative Coalition and the ACLU was made not just on behalf of the students within the group, but also on behalf of a number of students who came to the Coalition with their stories of neglect and abuse while attending district schools.

“The school district’s response, while unfortunate, is entirely consistent with the administration’s culture of minimizing and victim-blaming,” said Sarah Kauphusman, a former Chippewa Falls student whose experiences were featured in the complaint. “In contrast, I trust that DPI will take this complaint seriously, and I hope to see change then.”

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