Taking a Stand Against Discriminatory School Policies in Wisconsin

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Photo of Elisabeth Lambert

Elisabeth Lambert, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by Wm. Collins Kohler Foundation and an anonymous supporter, recently spoke with us about the work she is doing to challenge discriminatory school practices with her host organization, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

Before your Equal Justice Works Fellowship, you taught English as a public school teacher. What motivated you to leave the classroom for law school?

The school where I taught looked diverse on paper—in fact, it was deeply segregated, with white students concentrated in accelerated and honors classes and students of color concentrated in the basic level. There were also racial disparities in discipline, curriculum, class sizes at the different levels, representation in special education, and just in the way some teachers and leaders in the building interacted with kids of different races. I attempted in various ways to advocate for kids and to remedy some of the wrongs, at least in my own classroom, but my effectiveness was limited by the structure of the institution. I went to law school because I wanted to learn how to tackle these issues at a systemic level.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, you provide legal representation to children dealing with racial harassment and discrimination at school. Can you share more about the types of incidents you have seen occur at schools across Wisconsin? 

Most of my clients have been harassed by fellow students because of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They’ve experienced slurs, racist and homophobic jokes, threats, and physical assaults. There are also patterns in how their schools have avoided responsibility for addressing these incidents: schools give wrist-slap consequences to harassers, and treat incidents as isolated instead of recognizing their systemic nature. Several of my clients have been told they need to redress and prevent their own harassment, by being tougher or by avoiding the people who’ve targeted them. Also, districts in Wisconsin have a lot of latitude to write their own discrimination and harassment complaint procedures, and many of them have procedures that are very difficult to find and to follow, which severely limits families’ ability to enforce their kids’ rights to safe, fair schools.

In the past year, you have helped parents and advocacy groups file complaints at five school districts. Can you tell us about some of the outcomes from these rulings? What steps have the school districts taken to address racial harassment and discrimination?

One district settled with us almost immediately after we filed our appeal. It agreed to a plan which included changes to the district’s harassment policy and complaint procedures, work with an equity consultancy, and training for staff. A second district, which had suspended a 6th grader for attempting to form a Gay–Straight Alliance (GSA), also reached a resolution with us which included supporting the formation of the GSA and providing training for staff on creating an LGBTQ+ safe space. A third district contested our appeal, but the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction ruled in my client’s favor and ordered the district to submit a corrective action plan including policy changes, an equity audit, and staff training.

Part of your work also involves working with educators to help them better understand students’ rights and be allies to students in their schools. In what ways are you supporting educators in becoming more effective advocates?

Many educators aren’t aware that their school district has a formal student discrimination complaint process, that the outcome of the district-level process can be appealed to our state education agency, or that educators are protected from retaliation if they file a complaint or act as a witness. In the trainings, I teach educators to recognize various common forms of prohibited discrimination, and then help them find and get familiar with their district complaint process (which can vary a lot from one district to the next). The goal is that the next time a teacher witnesses or hears about discrimination or harassment of a student, they can either help the student navigate the complaint process or, if appropriate, the teacher can file a complaint themself.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the education landscape in lasting ways. What challenges have you noticed as a result of the pandemic, both for you and the students you represent? What challenges do you anticipate as we emerge from the pandemic? 

I’m paying close attention to in-person vs. virtual learning as a new segregation fault line. In many districts in Wisconsin, white students make up the majority of those returning in person, while students of color are disproportionately choosing to remain in virtual school (in many cases to avoid racial harassment and punitive discipline at school, as well as COVID-19). I’m paying attention to things like class sizes, quality of instruction, and availability of special education and English Language Learner programs and supports in virtual programs relative to in-person programs.

What has your overall experience as an Equal Justice Works Fellow been like so far? What is the most exciting part of being a Fellow? 

It’s been an awesome experience. I am doing the exact work I dreamed of doing when I went to law school. I’m practicing in an area where not many people have practiced, so it involves a lot of creativity, hustle, and chutzpah, navigating novel systems and problems. It is such an amazing privilege to work in that way this early in my career. I love my host organization so much—I’ve built wonderful relationships with many of my colleagues (even though we only interact on Zoom), and I have the most thoughtful, supportive mentor anyone could ever ask for. I am growing into the lawyer I want to become!

To learn more about Elisabeth’s Fellowship program, visit her profile.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow