A high school in Madison is asking students to segregate themselves by race when joining online political discussions sponsored by the school.

Madison West High School announced in an email to parents and students that, as “part of our collective work towards being an anti-racist school community,” the school was creating “virtual discussion spaces” for staff and students to talk together about “the pain our community is feeling at this present moment and make concrete plans in moving forward together.”

However, the “anti-racist school” is segregating the discussion by race, as if the high school administration never heard of Brown v Board of Education.

We will conduct this work in affinity groups to maximize the level of emotional safety and security to do this work properly. Please join the Zoom space where you most closely identify:

White students: Friday, July 10, from 1-2 PM (link to Zoom)

Students of color: Every Friday (beginning 7/3), from 1-2 PM (link to Zoom)

The email asked recipients to contact the administration with questions. However, the voice mail for the school’s principal and author of the email, Karen Boran, indicates that the phone messages will not be checked by her assistant “for several weeks.” An email to Boran was not returned at press time.

The segregationist policy for the “discussion spaces” is being challenged publicly in a letter from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). The letter, co-written by WILL President Rick Esenberg and Deputy Counsel Luke Berg, questioned the legality of the policy..

“While an honest conversation about racial issues can be a laudable goal, West High School seems to be going about it in an improper – and illegal – way,” the letter reads. “WILL was surprised to learn that the school administration apparently decided the best way to ‘do this work’ would be to conduct these discussions in racially-segregated groups.” 

The letter from WILL says the policy may violate Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI “generally prohibits ‘discrimination’ ‘on the ground of race, color, or national origin’ in federally funded programs, including schools,” according to WILL.

In addition to the legal concerns, the letter from WILL explains that Madison West’s policies are counterproductive.

We are concerned that using racially-segregated discussion groups as a means to become an “anti- racist school community” is ill-conceived, for a variety of reasons. For example, by associating racial segregation with “emotional safety and security,” the school communicated to students and families that racial integration somehow detracts from “emotional safety and security.” That is the polar opposite of the message that should be communicated right now. As an additional example, West’s broad classification of all students into “white students” and “students of color” undoubtedly alienated many students who do not fit neatly into these racial categories. As a final example, if the goal is for students of different races and ethnicities to “build empathy and community for each other” and to “make individual and collective connections,” racial segregation is the worst possible model; only an integrated discussion would allow students to hear and learn from each other.

In a release accompanying the letter, WILL said that the organization “intends to closely monitor this situation and hopes for a prompt response from Madison West High School administrators.”

“It is head-spinning that a public school in Wisconsin would adopt racial segregation as a tool to confront racism in the twenty-first century,” said Esenberg. “It is an affront to the hard-fought progress our country has made. Madison West ought to reverse course immediately and reject this unmistakably bad idea.”