Since July 2022, Mario Koran has covered the political battle being waged over critical race theory in Kiel, Wisconsin. Originally published as three stories in Wisconsin Watch, Barn Raiser has combined them into one and presents them here.
On May 26, 2022, the day of the third bomb threat, a bell echoed through Kiel, Wisconsin’s empty middle school.
Students had gone home days ago after the first bomb threat, and they would finish the school year virtually. Graduation ceremonies were postponed. Sports games canceled. The Memorial Day parade? Nixed.
Smoky clouds hung like the pall that had enveloped the town in recent weeks. Neighbors grew suspicious of neighbors. Residents peeked out of windows; few ventured into the streets of this northeastern Wisconsin town of 4,000.
Many who spoke to a reporter requested anonymity and out-of-view meeting spots.
“It feels like we’ve been hijacked by something bigger than Kiel,” one school parent said, sitting by the banks of the Sheboygan River. “A year ago, two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have expected any of this. It’s an unbelievable scenario.”
Even before the bomb threats, the possibility of violence chilled conversations. Those who spoke publicly risked stepping into a vicious vortex of Facebook brawls. By May 2022, Kiel’s political factions clashed over the direction of schools, public libraries and even the local farmer’s market.
Kiel’s paralysis in late May and early June 2022 followed a descent into incivility that shares elements of school board fights across the country—fueled by a cocktail of political tribalism, COVID-19 anxiety, false claims of election fraud and racial tensions following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd in 2020. The town’s turmoil offers deeply divided Wisconsin an extreme example of what can happen when partisan misinformation aggravates the resentment and distrust already festering in a community.
A news event shook Kiel in mid-May 2022. That’s when the parents of three Kiel Middle School boys told news outlets that their children were under investigation for violating Title IX—a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools—for allegedly bullying a transgender student.
The parents were outraged at the school for what the families described as the mistaken use of the wrong pronouns—using “she” to address the transgender student, who went by “they/them” pronouns. Luke Berg, an attorney from the powerful conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), represented the accused boys.
The investigation violated the boys’ right to free speech, he argued. The public has yet to hear the transgender student’s side of the story, and federal privacy laws shield those details. Berg acknowledged to Wisconsin Watch that WILL withheld some details from the narrative it pushed to the media, including hyper-partisan juggernauts Newsmax and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
A Kiel music teacher’s report flagged four or five incidents between the boys and the transgender student, Berg said. Rose Rabidoux, the mother of one of the accused boys, added that the teacher documented incidents across multiple days, not an isolated conversation in class. She acknowledged that one of the boys once “lashed out” and threw food at the transgender student—none of which was revealed in initial media interviews.
In the days that followed the first bomb threat on May 23, residents phoned police on most anything that appeared suspicious, including a Wisconsin Watch reporter photographing the library. “People are really amped up,” an officer said while confirming the reporter’s identification. “We’re getting calls about everything.”
In the backdrop, mass shootings—first in Buffalo, New York, then Uvalde, Texas —only heightened fears.
Over nine days, six emailed bomb threats would land in school, police and news media inboxes, and the list of targets grew. First, the middle school, then multiple Kiel schools. Eventually all schools, the public library, city hall, wastewater treatment plant, stores and all roads into and out of the city.
Effectively holding Kiel’s core institutions hostage, an anonymous emailer warned the school district to drop the Title IX investigation by June 3 or face additional threats.
On June 2, school board members emerged from a closed meeting to pronounce the Title IX investigation “closed” in an unsigned letter.
WILL and some Kiel residents welcomed the result, while others suggested that school board members submitted to a terrorist’s demands. The person who sent the threats acknowledged the investigation’s closure in a follow up message, but promised threats to any Wisconsin school district attempting to investigate similar complaints in the future, according to WBAY, which received the email.
Stuart Long, a school board member, said the board did not let the threats dictate the outcome, but he acknowledged that they expedited deliberations.
“Did we cave? Absolutely not, we did not cave. Were the threats keeping our feet to the fire to keep pushing us towards a resolution maybe sooner than later? I would have to say yes,” Long said. “It was expedited in the sense that everybody wanted this to end.”
Questions loom about how the outcome might affect future Wisconsin school investigations—and about what Kiel’s saga indicates about the trajectory of Wisconsin’s democracy.
The district’s swift closure of the investigation will send a chilling message to schools and districts that protecting transgender students could put them in danger, said Elizabeth Tang, senior counsel for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
“The right wing extremists will see that this tactic has worked,” she said. “Any reasonable person would conclude that an anti-trans terrorist used threats to force the school to close its Title IX investigation.”
‘The water was boiling’
Residents long saw Kiel as a place where families stroll along river banks after grabbing a bite at Dairy Queen. At the Kiel Picnic, the summer’s premier event, parents send their kids to the tilt-a-whirl, grab a beer, then make the celebration Wisconsin-official with fried cheese curds from the Future Farmers of America stand.
But sometime over the past two years, an insidious force began tearing at the community’s fabric, about two dozen residents told Wisconsin Watch. Exactly when that shift started depends on whom you ask, but Kiel Police Chief Dave Funkhouser said it started in the schools.
“The political atmosphere has definitely been amped up with the school board elections, and there was a critical race theory [CRT] issue going around,” Funkhouser said. “The water was boiling, and when [the Title IX investigation] came to the light, it really kind of brought the pot to a full boil and overflowed at times.”
The Title IX-related backlash poured gasoline on Kiel’s political bonfire, but an earlier bullying investigation provided the kindling.
In July 2020, two months after Floyd’s murder and amid nationwide protests against violence inflicted upon Black Americans, Amy Wempner, mother of Armond Wempner, a Black Kiel High School student, discovered racist messages in her son’s football teammate group chat.
She took the messages to school officials, and the superintendent eventually filed a complaint on her behalf with the school district. When the school district took little action, the ACLU helped her escalate the complaint to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. As part of a settlement, the school district hired a consultant to educate staff and students about racism and harassment.
Later, in 2021, a local resident accused the consultant of promoting CRT. Soon a faction of the mostly white community viewed the theory as one of the biggest threats to Kiel’s children.
CRT is a decades-old academic concept asserting that white supremacy from America’s past lives on in its laws and institutions—shaping racial disparities across society today. But in the early days of the pandemic, writer Christopher Rufo sharpened the phrase into a kind of weaponized, catch-all for the “woke” racial ideologies that progressives back and conservatives scorn. “Critical race theory is the perfect villain,” he told The New Yorkerin 2021.
Republican lawmakers nationwide have since pushed often vague bans on CRT and broader efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in public schools, despite a lack of evidence that K-12 schools taught or endorsed the academic theory.
The anti-CRT messages spilled onto the pages of the Tri-County News, Kiel’s newspaper. “My mother and her family fled Russia and came to America to escape Marxism. Now it’s here in the form of CRT!” wrote Dennis Steinhardt, the brother of Kiel Mayor Michael Steinhardt.
One local group, Tri-County Citizens, coalesced around an effort to keep CRT out of schools. Its website, which has since stopped functioning, prominently featured a video of Rufo asserting a connection between CRT and Marxism. Tri-County Citizens and another group, Common Sense Kiel, accused school board incumbents of advancing CRT and backed three challengers for their seats. (The challengers did not respond to Wisconsin Watch’s interview requests.)
The school district’s handling of race suddenly dominated the school board contest, alongside falling pandemic-era test scores and false claims of “pornography” in the local library. The weaponization of CRT had worked—making a faction in Kiel more concerned about a manufactured threat than the documented bullying of a Black student.
A spoon at a knife fight
Tony Johannes knew that his school board seat was in jeopardy in April 2022 when he read a letter in the newspaper titled “God remains in charge.”
“Christianity and Critical Race Theory (CRT) cannot coexist; therefore, I cannot vote for any of the current board members who voted to support CRT,” it said.
Johannes, who held his seat for only six months after his appointment to the board, describes himself as “just a math teacher from Sheboygan who likes to watch the Bucks.”
The letter in the paper confused him; he and his family are church-going Christians—he previously served as his church’s president, he said, and he’d never endorsed CRT.
“That was the moment I realized I was in trouble,” he said. “People either had their mind made up or they were no longer willing to listen.”
Just days earlier, a group of 70 local teachers sought to correct CRT-related inaccuracies in their own letter to the editor.
“First, Critical Race Theory is an academic legal theory taught in higher education. We discuss diversity,” the letter stated. “We discuss tolerance and respect to maintain a school that is a safe and welcoming place for all of our students.”
But Johannes saw his challengers’ message as louder and more persuasive than his stance that the school board should focus on preparing kids for college or careers when they graduate.
He also appeared to be financially outmatched. Glossy, expensive-looking banners touted his challengers, while the marker ink on Johannes’ hand-drawn signs bled in the rain.
“It felt like I was bringing a spoon to a knife fight,” Johannes said.
The school board challengers narrowly swept three incumbents, giving self-professed anti-CRT members a majority on the seven-member board.
Democrats ‘flatfooted’ as GOP leaps into school board races
In the past, Kiel’s local races generally stayed nonpartisan, with little meddling from state political parties, said Eli Shaver, chair of the Calumet County Democratic Party. In 2022, nearly every local race became partisan.
Statewide, school board races traditionally are sleepy, nonpartisan contests in which campaigns might raise a few hundred dollars, said Matt Rothschild, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in politics.
But the Wisconsin Republicans are tightening their focus on local politics.
Ahead of the 2022 spring primaries, the Wisconsin Republican Party sent about $284,000 to county GOP offices statewide, while the Democratic Party of Wisconsin sent just $85,000 to its county parties, according to a Wisconsin Watch analysis.
That included the state GOP’s injection of $18,000 in Calumet and Manitowoc Counties, where Kiel is located. It was nine-times more than state Democrats sent to the two county parties.
“The Democratic Party was caught a little flat-footed in terms of injecting money,” Shaver said. “We really were not ready for the degree to which the Republican Party came into the area.”
That came amid a GOP push to reshape school governance on race and gender nationwide, in line with former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s 2021 declaration, “The path to save the nation is very simple. It’s going to go through the school boards.”
The same issues that roiled conservatives in Kiel showed up in nearby school districts, Shaver added, but they didn’t draw the same level of animosity as in Kiel.
Another first for Shaver: watching local political action committees form in Kiel.
Kiel-area resident Matt Piper, who registered a PAC called Citizens for Authentic Pride, said expenditures went toward printed flyers. The group also paid for an ad that ran in the local newspaper.
“If we see large-scale involvement of political parties in elections at this level, you are going to run out so many good candidates,” said Johannes. “Because either you have to affiliate yourself with a party, or you have to have a large war chest of your own.”
Pushing book bans
Kiel school board incumbents faced a whack-a-mole battle against misinformation. Their challengers’ attack lines morphed faster than they could respond, roping in other Kiel institutions along the way. That included the public library.
The library’s trouble started in November 2021, when a man called police to claim that he spotted pornography on the shelves.
The call put two books under the microscope. One, “Making a Baby,” deals with pregnancy; the other, “It’s Perfectly Normal,” contains illustrations of human anatomy, gender and sexuality—“something that a parent and child could sit down together to read and open a conversation about the human body,” said Julia Davis, director of the Kiel Public Library.
Upon visiting the library, Funkhouser, the police chief, saw the books’ cartoon-like drawings of embracing couples.
“The content of the books was clearly intended, in my opinion, to be educational and informative, not erotic in nature,” Funkhouser wrote in a report.
The complaint initially drew little attention, Davis said. But as the school board election approached, challengers began accusing the library of providing pornography to children. Candidates vowed to “keep pornographic materials out of schools.”
“It turned into a big talking point: ‘We need those candidates to save us from the pornography,’ even though no one seems to be able to show us that it exists,” Johannes said.
Members of Tri-County Citizens and other local conservatives fueled the outrage. In a video, Ryan Harden, leader of Common Sense Kiel and the parent of a middle schooler, connected the issue to schools by pointing to a policy that allows people to return public library books to a school library.
On social media, Harden called public library staff “perverted” and urged others to file complaints, circulating a form letter.
The library received 18 complaints by May, although seven or eight contained nothing beyond a signature, Davis said. Still, the complaints triggered a “reconsideration process” in which the library board would meet to consider their permanent removal.
The book’s supporters packed the library basement for that meeting, by far outnumbering complainants. Lifetime users of Kiel’s library, victim’s rights advocates, grandparents and school board members condemned book-banning.
“I’ve seen fascism, I’ve seen terror. And the problem is we start banning books, that leads to one thing and never ends very well,” said Jason Grube, a war veteran and father of three. “It always ends in terror. This is the United States of America. It is not the Middle East. It’s not the Taliban, and it’s certainly not 1939 Germany.”
More than 20 people offered public comments; only two supported limiting access to books. One pro-censorship speaker conceded that the books were not pornography, but said the library should shield young kids from them.
The library board overwhelmingly voted to keep the books on the shelves—a win for those resisting backlash politics in Kiel. But it was only one battle in a larger war.
‘Go Gladiator with this one’
For Harden, everything changed on January 6, 2021—the day rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, aiming to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory over Trump. Although four people died during the episode and about 150 law enforcement officers were injured, Biden’s confirmed victory most bothered Harden.
“Everything flipped upside down for me, as it did with millions of others,” he said. “It made me lose faith in government and policy, in the judicial system, as well as the congressional system.”
“We’ve been lied to and lied to, to the point where a tyrant has taken over,” he added.
Harden began to mobilize folks who felt the same, becoming one of Kiel’s most prolific organizers. He pushed to end school mask mandates during the pandemic. Then he worked to flip the school board to advance his brand of conservatism.
A host of factors caused Kiel to erupt during the Title IX investigation, Harden said.
“It was the crossroads of COVID, isolation, bad grades, bad teaching policies, bad administration,” he said. “And the thing that blew the top off the volcano was the Title IX and cleverly marking a bullying charge as a sexual harassment charge.”
Using the Facebook group he started, now branded “Common Sense Kiel,” Harden has excoriated the school district for falling test scores, warned of Marxist indoctrination of students and pushed back the use of self-selected pronouns, which he said creates more gender confusion. The rhetoric mobilized the group’s nearly 200 members.
Along with Tri-County Citizens, Common Sense Kiel spurred like-minded residents to attend school board meetings, pass out fliers and knock on doors ahead of the election. The groups’ talking points, amplified on social media and in the newspaper, framed school board campaigns.
“We were just concerned citizens reaching out to our neighbors,” said Piper, a self-described proud member of Tri-County Citizens. Rabidoux, the mother of one of the boys scrutinized in the Title IX proceeding, said she also contributed to the group’s efforts, and Mike Joas, elected to the school board in April, attended meetings.
Harden said local conservatives previously lacked an asset like him—someone skilled at political messaging, confident enough to livestream for 20 minutes on the dangers of CRT and able to deliver those messages to ears and eyeballs.
Harden said he filmed the campaign videos for all three challengers and built their websites. He rallied others to get involved over social media.
“The choices we make now—I guess we’ll just go Gladiator with this one—will echo in eternity,” Harden said with conviction in one video address.
Pushback at the farmer’s market
But not all of Kiel appreciated his messages. Speaking to Wisconsin Watch, more than a dozen residents accused Harden of fueling local vitriol. None was willing to be identified publicly, citing fears of retaliation amid the violent threats in Kiel.
But after word spread in May that Harden would help lead this year’s farmer’s market, 66 residents implored city leaders to closely monitor Harden’s leadership, citing “his outward display of anti-LGTBQ speech,” among other issues, according to a letter obtained by Wisconsin Watch.
“Some of the communication coming from Mr. Harden around the farmer’s market seems to thinly veil his political views and motivations, which are extreme and discriminatory in nature,” the letter said.
Harden said detractors singled him out for his anti-left views and because of his effective communication, and he denies accusations of homophobia, telling Wisconsin Watch he simply raises issues worthy of debate.
“The fact that people associate questioning narratives with hate and bigotry is asinine to me,” he said.
If anyone faces online harassment, Harden said, it’s him—as detractors mock his family, leave negative reviews for his business and accuse him of running his own militia.
The perception is rooted in a group Harden formed, the United States Patriot Community, which says it “helps United States Citizens prepare for, and fix the decay of America.” The group meets in person and online, where members must first pay $40 and clear a background check. A clean criminal record is “essential to proving to the public you are worthy of public servitude,” according to the platform’s policies.
New members pledge to obey commanding officers, are advised to wear a uniform and must swear an oath with their hand on a Bible. The group is not anti-government, it says, but it helps members “restore your communities to a constitutional republic,” and “hold court proceedings to bring tyrants and criminals to justice.”
Visitors to Harden’s business website can purchase a “Let’s Go Brandon” hoodie, a tactical folding knife or a foam throwing star for use in live action role play—Harden’s hobby.
Some longtime residents remember the Posse Comitatus, a white supremacist paramilitary organization that operated in northeastern Wisconsin and beyond until criminal convictions broke up the group in the 1980s. Harden denies his group is a militia. Instead, he said, it promotes a lifestyle of growing crops, skinning rabbits, cleaning fish or “just getting back into small-town rural activities.”
The group stays in touch with law enforcement and has offered to collaborate “not armed, just to be a valuable asset,” during any civil unrest, he said.
Funkhouser said his police department doesn’t generally accept such offers, nor is he aware of local militia activity.
“We’re appreciative of his offer, but to my knowledge, we’ve never taken them up on any of his offers,” Funkhouser said.
WILL declares another victory
The final bomb threat came with an ultimatum: Drop the Title IX investigation by June 3, or the city’s utility station, wastewater treatment plant, stores and all roads, would be targeted.
The night before that deadline, the school board declared “the matter closed” in a letter that lacked details on how it reached the decision
School board trustee Stuart Long said the board followed the district’s policies for Title IX complaints, but declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality provisions. A blanket exemption in that policy appears to give the board broad power in “extraordinary circumstances.”
“It was a great win,” Berg, the WILL attorney, proclaimed three days after the board’s announcement.
He was offering an update on the case at the Freedom Project Academy in Appleton, a private school that says it is “rooted firmly in the Judeo-Christian values as promoted in the Constitution by our Founding Fathers.” About 50 mostly gray-haired audience members gave him a hero’s welcome.
“Thank God we have your organization, because there’s been a lot of wins,” said one audience member. Said another: “We would be in a different country if every state in the union had a WILL law firm as busy and active as we have here.”
Others mocked the concept of transgender identities. “I could say to classmates of mine, you must address me as ‘handsome.’ Otherwise, you are harassing me. Right?” one man said.
Berg echoed the man’s perception. “This is a trend among young people. It’s to be unique, to be special,” he said.
Several of its recent lawsuits target protections for transgender students, including challenging Madison Metropolitan School District’s allowance of students to choose their pronouns without informing parents. That case is pending as courts decide whether the plaintiffs that WILL is representing may remain anonymous.
At the Appleton gathering, Berg affably walked the audience through the narrative of Kiel’s Title IX episode that his group offered media outlets: a simple disagreement about pronoun use spurred a sexual harassment investigation.
“It’s a one page document, and the whole description is ‘mis-pronouning,’ ” Berg said. “So the district’s theory appears to be that any misuse of pronouns is automatically sexual harassment under Title IX and is punishable speech.”
Even if the comments were inappropriate or rude, he said, they wouldn’t rise to the level of sexual harrassment under Title IX, which defines it as “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies a person equal educational access.”
Berg rejected the suggestion—from critics not in the Appleton audience—that WILL and the families of the accused boys fanned the outrage that culminated in bomb threats by going public with their defense.
“That’s just preposterous and frankly, offensive to suggest that families should be blamed for the actions of a third party when all they were doing was publicly defending themselves and calling out what was an egregious misapplication of the law,” he said.
Said Rabidoux about going public: “It was our only defense.”
Berg said WILL helped law enforcement by publicly condemning the threats and emailing the person who sent them, after obtaining the person’s email from police.
Funkhouser confirmed WILL’s cooperation during the police investigation. “They were helpful in trying to resolve things,” he told Wisconsin Watch.
Details of complaint shielded
Berg’s narrative remains difficult to verify because records remain confidential and the transgender student at the heart of the story has not shared their perspective. A message Wisconsin Watch sent to their family went unreturned.
Berg confirmed that notes from the music teacher included a handful of incidents that had been left out of WILL’s narrative, all of which centered around misuse of the student’s pronouns.
Berg said WILL aimed “to protect both sides” by withholding the notes from its narrative. Delving into the transgender student’s complaints, he said, would have required hearing the boys’ version of the story, which would be unproductive.
“The point of publicizing this was to point out that the district took what is a garden variety dispute among middle schoolers, and blew it out of proportion and turned it into a Title IX investigation,” Berg told Wisconsin Watch.
Rabidoux said conflict between her son and the transgender student started in November 2021 and lasted through April, and the teacher’s notes reflected conversations spanning various days.
The disputes became heated, leading to an instance in which one of the accused boys threw food at the transgender student, she said. But Rabidoux said the transgender student actually bullied her son and she repeatedly expressed concerns to school staff.
“They never helped him,” Rabidoux said. “Because he’s white and straight? Is that why?”
Did ‘mob mentality’ take hold in Kiel?
Long, the school board member, called the public narrative about the Title IX complaint partial and one-sided. And he described WILL’s involvement as callous and self-serving.
“They’ve chosen not to reveal everything, and they’re not obligated to,” he said. “[WILL’s] motivations are very obvious: They want to be the preeminent culture warrior firm in the nation. They want the attention. They want to attract money, and they want prestige.”
Rabidoux wants assurance that the investigation will be removed from the boys’ student records and said her children will transfer to a private school next year.
For his part, Harden expressed disappointment that the letter from the school board didn’t explicitly exonerate the boys. He has mixed feelings, however, about the violent threats used to pressure the board.
“Forcing an administration’s hand to drop a charge? I’m not sure how I feel about that. There’s a community response, and then there’s mob mentality, and I’m not sure which one fits where,” he said. “But this is a tactic that has to be very strategically used so it doesn’t get out of hand.”
Did the bomb threats mean that the backlash had gotten out of hand?
“I don’t believe it got out of hand, but it got close,” Harden said. “Closer than this community has ever felt as it pertains to physical violence.”
Funkhouser is catching his breath following the bomb scares.
Police chief: ‘Be the light’
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It was a three-week time period that was very stressful for our entire community, but especially for me and our police department,” he told Wisconsin Watch.
Numerous local residents have called Funkhouser a steady, singular voice of leadership throughout the crisis while Mayor Mike Steinhardt and other city officials remained silent.
“That’s right,” Steinhardt said when a reporter pointed out the lack of communication from his office. He said other officials hadn’t spoken either before abruptly ending the call.
As tensions escalated during the bomb scares, Funkhouser called on Kiel residents to “be the light” and stay positive.
One resident made and sold “be the light” yard signs, donating the proceedings to the police and fire departments. Others left their porch lights on at night—a symbol for combatting the dark times.
The FBI has offered assistance as law enforcement continues to search for whomever issued the bomb threats that paralyzed Kiel. In late May, the FBI arrested a 34 year-old-man in Oceanside, California for allegedly threatening to kill a Kiel schools staff member, but he was not believed to be the same person who emailed the bomb threats.
The investigation may take weeks or years, but Funkhouser said he’s a patient man.
“Technology can be used to catch people, but can also be used to hide or conceal identities and location,” Funkhouser said. “It could take time, but we’re not stopping.”
‘This is Kiel against hate’
For the moment, daily life in Kiel has resumed its normal rhythm in July 2022. Kids are back to their summer activities. Families have returned to their riverbank strolls.
While the bomb threats have ceased, some residents are looking to upcoming elections with urgency. Shane Konen said he’ll closely scrutinize down ballot races for positions like alderperson or city clerk—those that typically draw little attention but play a crucial role in democracy.
During the school board election, he and his wife Kim became involved with a loosely organized group of parents and citizens named Best for Kids, which Kim describes as a nonpartisan effort to make Kiel more tolerant. She said she aims to challenge the misinformation threatening the community.
“This is not us versus them. It’s not liberal versus conservative. This is Kiel against hate,” Kim Konen said. “This is about standing up for all the kids and educating them and making it inclusive.”
Some pointed to encouraging moments in recent months—like the day at the library when the community renounced book banning.
Gabrielle Draxler, a Kiel native who works as a librarian in southeastern Wisconsin, drove two hours to attend the library meeting in May because she believed its subtext was clear: At a time when Republican-sponsored bills were targeting transgender students, the attempted book banning seemed to signal that LGBTQ community members were not welcome in Kiel.
For Draxler, the vote to keep the books represented a larger victory for the city.
“We won that day at the library, and it felt so good,” she said. “We might have just won the battle, not the war, but even just knowing you have people on your side is a statement to young people ‘you are not alone.’ ”
‘The Wempner family felt like prisoners’
The Wempner family felt like prisoners as they sat in their house in early June—surrounded by woods on their 6-acre lot outside of Kiel.
Unexamined until now is how documented acts of racism provided the kindling for Kiel’s political eruption. That story started in 2020 when Amy Wempner discovered racist Snapchat messages sent about her son Armond—one of five Black students at Kiel High School that year.
The family’s push for the school district to respond triggered a domino effect: As part of a legal settlement, the school district ultimately brought on a consulting firm to conduct training about racism and harassment. But well-organized Kiel parents accused the firm of advancing critical race theory, which residents—echoing conservative pundits on TV—described as an infiltration of Marxist and anti-white ideology. That movement propelled the ousters of three school board members.
It also prompted Armond to transfer to another school district. In a federal lawsuit filed in October, the family accused the Kiel school district of violating Armond’s civil rights by failing to appropriately address racial hostility.
In June, as police hunted for whomever was threatening to blow up Kiel, the Wempners feared violence could strike at any moment.
“I’m honestly trying to decide whether I should put bullets in my pistols and have them handy,” Dan Wempner said, as he leafed through a scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings of Armond’s athletic accomplishments.
“But I also don’t want them handy because the kids might find it.”
Armond’s experience mirrors that of students of color in some other Wisconsin schools. And it illustrates how a Republican strategy to mischaracterize discussions of race and biases as political indoctrination can prevent schools from protecting students from documented acts of racism.
Rhetoric around critical race theory only escalated during the high-stakes November mid-term election in Wisconsin and across the country.
Football star finds family
As his family tells it, Armond Wempner carried high hopes when he moved to Kiel in the fall of 2017, the start of eighth grade.
Armond looked to reinvent himself after spending most of his life in the foster care system. He shuffled between families until Amy and Dan Wempner— both of whom are white—adopted him. He gained three younger siblings and soon called Amy “mom.”
Despite being among few Black students in a 94% white city, he didn’t feel like an outsider. His athletic talent cast him as a rising football star in a community that swelled with pride for its Kiel High Raiders.
“I just wanted to put Kiel in the spotlight,” Armond said. “To show people that just because we’re a small town, that doesn’t mean we can’t produce athletes.”
He grew into a 6-foot-tall, 180-pound linebacker who excelled on defense and ran a 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, top-tier speed for a high school athlete. He would sack a quarterback five times in a game, the second most in state history.
Armond’s personality made him equally magnetic off the field, his mom said. When Amy led Sunday school classes, Armond helped. When a young fan took a shine to him, Armond showed him around the football field after games.
“He’s that kid who brings you in,” Amy said. “He was just a huge hit.”
Facing racism in Kiel
But sometimes-overt, sometimes-casual acts of racism would mar Armond’s high school experience.
Shortly after Armond moved to town, he and Dan said they listened in bewilderment as the teenager’s basketball teammates told racist jokes about Black people during a tournament trip. The coach did nothing to stop it, they recall.
Dan said he remained silent, not wanting to complicate Armond’s life by jumping to his defense. “I still carry shame for not stopping it back then,” Dan said. “But I just thought, when you’re with the lions, you have to act like a lion.”
In 2019, a white football player said the N-word during class, according to the Wempners’ legal complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
A teacher heard the slur and reported it to administration, prompting the school to suspend the student from games. A group of students campaigned to “free” the football player from suspension, the lawsuit said.
A teacher separately documented an incident in which several middle school boys cornered Armond’s younger brother, who has autism, and forced him to utter the N-word.
Armond initially shrugged off the racism he experienced.
“You just kind of go along with it and laugh it off, otherwise you’re the bad guy,” Armond, now 18, said in an interview at his home. “It’s not right, but people here aren’t used to being around African Americans, or even different ethnicities.”
But an incident in July 2020, the summer before Armond’s junior year, upended that status quo. Amy picked up Armond’s phone to discover that his football teammates had shared messages in a Snapchat group he was part of that advanced demeaning racist stereotypes and described Armond as a criminal because of his skin color.
Amy asked her son how long this had been happening.
“Since I moved here, mom,” he told her.
This time, Amy wouldn’t let it slide.
District acknowledges racial harassment
As the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd set off nationwide protests against racial injustice, Amy sought to make Kiel schools more welcoming to students of color.
She took the Snapchat messages to the football coach, its athletic director and Brad Ebert, the district’s superintendent.
Ebert downplayed the messages and asked Armond what he did to prompt the vulgarities, Amy said. In a separate meeting, the athletic director Steve Walsh said he “wasn’t surprised” to hear of the bullying and said “a transfer (out of the district) would probably be best” for Armond, according to the lawsuit.
Asked for comment, Ebert told Wisconsin Watch in an email that the school district could not respond to the Wempners’ statements or otherwise comment for this story, citing the lawsuit.
By August 2020, Ebert acknowledged in a letter that unlawful racial harassment occurred. Amy expected little action, so Elisabeth Lambert, an ACLU attorney, helped her escalate the complaint to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Months of negotiation yielded an out-of-court settlement in which the district agreed to hire an outside consultant to educate staff and students about responding to racism and harassment.
Teachers would then incorporate the training into classroom lessons. The district also agreed to clearly outline to parents how it planned to respond to the harassment complaints. The state DPI was to ensure the district followed through.
“Many districts have taken an approach to the investigation that’s more focused on dismissing or controverting the allegations as opposed to actually developing necessary facts and fully exploring the case,” Lambert said.
For instance, the Cedarburg School District challenged the Department of Public Instruction after it ordered the district to fully investigate allegations that a biracial student faced persistent racist slurs, jokes and comments.
Even after acknowledging racial harassment, some school districts—including Kiel’s—have failed to act, leaving oversight to already-traumatized subjects of harassment, Lambert said.
Partisan attacks citing critical race theory only complicate attempts to address documented racism in schools, she said.
“People who are in that kind of anti-CRT camp will try to tar my clients or me as Marxist agitators who have got some sort of ulterior motive to corrupt kids and bring in curriculum or ways of teaching that that they think are inappropriate,” Lambert said.
“We’re trying to help kids, and this culture war pushback is happening.”
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable in Kiel High School, Armond transferred to a more diverse school in Fond du Lac.
In August 2020, Armond asked the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association to waive the requirement that he miss a year of varsity sports due to the transfer.
“I don’t want to continue to go to school in Kiel because I feel like I don’t belong,” Armond wrote in his request.
“I just want to be a normal kid. I play football, I wrestle and I am a sprinter. I have worked so hard in Kiel to earn my positions on the varsity squads,” he added. “Please don’t make me sacrifice even more in order to go to a school that doesn’t single me out based on my race.”
The association granted the waiver. For the next two years, Armond would make the 90-minute round trip to Fond du Lac High School.
CRT opponents mobilize
Armond’s transfer came after some parents protested efforts to respond to racism in Kiel schools.
Brandon Gibbs, a parent of two district students, initiated the campaign against the consulting firm. In a 21-page letter to the school board, Gibbs accused the firm of advancing CRT, citing statements about anti-racism on its website. Neither he nor the firm responded to requests for comment.
Gibbs also expressed outrage that his daughter’s class watched a video about diversity that mentioned systemic racism and white privilege. That exercise signaled CRT’s arrival in Kiel, he wrote.
Gibbs wrote that CRT counters Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of equality because “it assigns collective guilt and ascribes character traits to people based only on the color of their skin.”
Stuart Long, a Kiel school board member, said Gibbs’ email was “the first indication that the local pushback to CRT was morphing into something much bigger.”
Weaponizing critical race theory
The criticism echoed anti-CRT rhetoric heard across partisan media.
“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” Rufo, who declined to be interviewed for this story, tweeted in March 2021. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
Rufo’s strategy proved wildly successful as he expanded his platform through appearances with conservative stars like FOX News’ Tucker Carlson, who routinely advances the conspiracy theories of white nationalists. Conservative groups now hold anti-CRT talks nationwide, including an October event in Waunakee, Wisconsin, called “Poisoned: The insidious ideologies in your schools.”
The UCLA School of Law is tracking more than 500 anti-CRT efforts introduced at the local, state, and federal levels since 2021. In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled Legislature in early 2022 passed a bill to prohibit educators from referencing a host of concepts, including “critical race theory,” “multiculturalism,” “equity” and “social justice,” before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the bill.
At least five Wisconsin school districts have adopted anti-CRT measures—from the tiny northern city of Mellen to the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha.
In his unsuccessful November 1922 midterm race for Wisconsin governor, Republican Tim Michels frequently called for schools to teach more “ABCs and less CRT,” adopting a popular party talking point.
While schools may educate students about racial bias, K-12 teachers do not teach CRT, which is generally limited to graduate-level coursework in universities, said Jamel Donnor, a professor of education at William & Mary and an expert on CRT and school desegregation.
But misleading claims about CRT in classrooms persist, he said, through a “calculating and concerted” political strategy to “speak it into existence.”
Those raising alarms about CRT claim the framework fuels divisions by categorizing white people as oppressors and students of color as victims. Donnor rebuts that characterization.
CRT emerged out of attempts to understand how law has been used to perpetuate inequality along the lines of race—as well as class, gender and sexual orientation, Donner said.
“One of the misperceptions of critical race theory is that it is anti-white, when nothing can be further from the truth,” he added. “It’s been created as this boogeyman—a phantom menace that doesn’t exist.”
Speaking to The New Yorker in June, Rufo outlined a similar strategy to exploit tensions around gender, saying there’s “no ceiling” to the emotional reaction it triggers from some parents.
“It’s like the tentacles of an octopus. It’s not just one thing, but it’s one strand of this larger animal, so to speak,” Donner said of the evolving Republican strategy. “It’s the same kind of rhetoric, the same fire and brimstone and the same actors pushing it. It’s all part of this unyielding beast.”
Echoing playbooks for opposing CRT
Kiel’s anti-CRT campaign followed playbooks crafted by Rufo and other conservative parent groups. The literature instructs parents in how to “hold a school district accountable” by opposing CRT through organizing, litigation and running for school board.
Gibbs helped organize a grassroots group called Tri-County Citizens who followed many of the steps outlined in such playbooks. The group’s mission: to keep critical race theory out of Kiel.
“(CRT) is a race-based political philosophy developed and promoted by Marxists. Its disciples claim the United States is fundamentally racist and that ALL white people are privileged and racist,” he said on an early version of its website, which featured one of Rufo’s videos.
In social media posts, Tri-County Citizens and a similar group, Common Sense Kiel, touted nationalistic, Judeo-Christian values while criticizing movements for racial equity and LGBTQ rights.
Facing that pushback, the school board halted work with Great Lakes Equity Center and delayed implementing the Wempner settlement agreement.
Meanwhile, the parent groups working closely with Ryan Harden, of the United States Patriot Community. launched campaigns for three candidates who ran on anti-CRT platforms—filming campaign videos, creating a political action committee and flooding social media and the local newspaper’s opinion page with polemics.
School board member embraces opposition
One longtime school board member was already sympathetic to the energized citizens’ views: Randy Olm, who opposed the anti-racism curriculum required by the settlement, arguing that it sounded Marxist.
“I don’t like the ‘programming’ word or the ‘restorative practices.’ It sounds like re-education to me,” Olm said during a 2021 board meeting, invoking the concept of forced indoctrination. “As the CRT stuff is being discussed, I would argue that putting a group of kids in the corner and telling them you’re the oppressed group—that’s programming.”
Olm’s rhetoric echoed what Rufo instructed in his “Parent Guidebook” for fighting CRT. Use the phrase “race reeducation programs,” it suggests, because the term is “trenchant and persuasive and resonates with the public.”
In a letter to the community, Olm acknowledged an “increased amount of racial and ethnic intimidation in our schools” but warned about the dangers of CRT—lamenting that the school board did not approve the curriculum changes required of the settlement that Ebert signed.
“We have effectively lost local control to determine how and what we’ll be teaching our students,” he wrote before endorsing the three insurgent school board candidates.
Olm, who did not respond to requests for comment, repeatedly downplayed the relevance of discussing racial identities with students, saying he has family members of color who have “grown up pretty white.”
“Don’t worry. I know how you feel. I have mixed race in my family, too,” Olm told Amy and Dan Wempner during a break at one board meeting—an exchange that another school board member confirmed.
The three school board challengers narrowly won election in April 2022.
Anti-racism curriculum seen as too controversial
In August 2022, the school board prepared to vote on an anti-racism training plan, as required by the Wempner settlement. Rather than rely on the Great Lakes Equity Center, a district staff member compiled various resources for consideration.
A public group edit of those resources preceded the regular board meeting. Residents, including Tri-County Citizens members, joined the board in changing language considered too controversial. Attendees scrutinized references to “microaggressions” and “power structures.” Some questioned the use of “talking circles” for an in-class ice-breaking activity. That detour lasted nearly 90 minutes.
Olm sought to remove discussions of race and ethnicity from the anti-racism training. New board member Diana Schaefer criticized use of the words “perpetrator” and “victim” in training on recognizing microaggressions.
“I take offense at saying that it’s the system’s fault for maybe poor choices or just life occurrences,” she said.
Mike Joas, another new board member, acknowledged a growing bullying and harassment problem in the district, but he doubted that racism was driving the trend.
“Yes, probably some students, because they’re colored or whatever, they are getting picked out,” he said, urging the district to emphasize treating each other better “instead of trying to divide people.”
In a 6-1 vote, the board approved what members called a compromise, eliminating portions that offended some residents.
Amy Wempner said the process produced a “watered down” curriculum that failed to satisfy the settlement provisions.
Discrimination complaint ‘closed’
Dan Meyer, a longtime Kiel school board member who has clashed with the newcomers, described the curriculum changes as “very cosmetic.” But it’s difficult to identify specific changes. Wisconsin Watch filed a public records request for the original draft, but Ebert said the district no longer has access to it.
Regardless, in an October 4, 2022, letter to Wempner, the state education department said the final curriculum met the settlement requirements, and “the DPI considers this matter closed.”
The school board’s vote came seven months after the initial deadline to approve the anti-racist curriculum.
Meyer attributed the delays to public pressure. Claims that the Great Lakes Equity Center would bring CRT into Kiel schools proved untrue, he said, and he regrets halting work with the firm.
“In hindsight, we never should have done that,” Meyer said. “The claims were based on a political agenda that had nothing to do with our school district.”
School board member Long said the anti-CRT campaign made the community ignore the victims of harassment.
“The thing that saddens me most is that because this organized effort has been so successful, the whole reason for the new curriculum—bullying and harassment—has been completely lost on the community,” Long said.
“Nobody seems to be upset anymore that the N-word has been used in schools. They’re more upset and worried about the solution than the actual problem.”
Armond finds ‘family’ in Fond du Lac
As a new school year began, Tri-County Citizens members demanded an investigation of how the district handled the crisis, warning that the results could jeopardize Ebert’s job.
Board officials want to move on from the chaotic spring. “As far as the School Board is concerned, this matter is closed,” an October 2022 letter to parents said.
Amy feels that her campaign against racism in Kiel schools remains incomplete. In her view, the district failed to uphold its end of the settlement.
“Our intent was to make the school a safer place for our children and other children of color and to make them feel like they belonged. And I do not feel like we’re any closer to that. In fact, I feel like we’re further away,” she said.
Armond said he’s glad to have transferred to Fond du Lac High School, where he felt more at home in class and on the football team.
“It was way better being around other races. It just opens your eyes to more of the world,” Armond said. “It finally felt more like a family.”
His high school graduation ceremony in June was a proud day for the Wempners.
“After all Armond’s been through, to see him graduate was a special moment. He’s the most resilient human you’ll ever meet,” Amy said.
Armond is now putting high school in the rearview mirror. He’s working a job in Kiel and visits his parents for Wednesday-night suppers. He doesn’t want people to see him as a victim. He just wants to ensure that his younger siblings, who are all children of color, don’t face what he did.
As he looks back on Kiel’s two years of turmoil that started with something that happened to him, Armond said it never felt like the conversation was about him.
“It didn’t even have anything to do with kids,” he said. “It was just about the adults.”
Concerned residents re-take school board, for now
In January, concerned residents of Kiel, Wisconsin, rebuked far-right officials who last year gained control of their school board, and clawed back political power by blocking the ouster of a popular superintendent.
Two members subsequently resigned from the Kiel Area School District board, returning the usually seven-member body to a moderate majority—at least temporarily.
Concerns that the board would oust Ebert spurred residents to pack the Kiel Performing Arts center for a January 4 meeting. So many attended that district officials moved the meeting from the high school library. Nearly all 26 residents who shared comments called for Ebert to stay, with many blaming the board for Kiel’s recent political turmoil.
Ebert’s supporters pointed to balanced budgets, the high-fives he gives students walking into school, his attendance at basketball games and other school functions.
“He just never turns off. He’s 100 percent for kids, all of the time,” middle school band teacher Becky Marcus told Wisconsin Watch. “I couldn’t be apathetic and assume someone else would stand up for him.”
After facing the public outcry, the board unanimously voted to renew Ebert’s contract. Board member Jamie Henschel, a Tri-County Citizens ally elected in April, concluded the meeting by resigning, citing unspecified bullying and harassment from board members.
“We need to lose the hate. If you think we are setting a good example for our children in this community, we are not. We are showing them how to divide a community,” Henschel told his board colleagues.
Board members also agreed to discuss removing board president Randy Olm, who was aligned with Tri-County Citizens, at the following school board meeting. Olm resigned days later, pointing to health concerns. He did not respond to questions from Wisconsin Watch.
The remaining school board members must now appoint two new members.
“Let me be clear, I love working here,” Ebert said in a written statement after his contract was renewed. “I promise to continue to do whatever is needed and whatever is best for ALL students, families and staff to ensure the Kiel Schools are welcoming, supportive and safe for all.”
Ebert remains in his job as partisan culture wars spur an exodus of the superintendents at public school districts in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
In Hartland, 20 miles west of Milwaukee, Arrowhead Union High School District Superintendent Laura Myrah announced in December her plans to retire in August, citing the increasing politicization of schools. Less than 30 miles from Kiel, Manitowoc Public School District Superintendent Mark Holzman left his position last year after backlash to COVID-19 protocols and misperceptions that the school was teaching critical race theory led to efforts to remove him.
Title IX probe spurs bomb threats
Tri-County Citizens ratcheted up most of the pressure on Ebert. Seeking to block “woke ideology” and lessons on racial justice, the group helped elect like-minded school board challengers last April by canvassing, producing campaign videos and creating a political action committee to raise funds.
Matt Piper, a Tri-County Citizens leader who plans to run for a school board seat in April’s election, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“As exemplified by your writings regarding Kiel, you sir have shown yourself to be an intentional promoter of partisan lies and deception,” he told a Wisconsin Watch reporter. “I pray daily for the conversion of all hearts in your ilk.”
In a previous interview, Piper described Tri-County Citizens as “just concerned citizens reaching out to our neighbors.”
David Voss, a resident whose two children attended Kiel schools, believes the group saw Ebert as a barrier to its goals.
“What nobody said publicly is the real reason Tri-County Citizens don’t want Dr. Ebert as superintendent: He was in the way of their agenda,” he said. “Ebert is anything but a sock puppet. He is a leader.”
Despite deep concerns about the way the school district handled the case—including Ebert’s early role—Amy Wempner, Armond’s mother, supported the superintendent at the January 4 meeting and largely faulted the school board.
“The federal complaint was not filed because of Brad Ebert. If you are looking to place blame for that complaint, look elsewhere,” she told the board.
Wempner told Wisconsin Watch she believes the board hampered Ebert’s response to racial bullying by slow-walking compliance with a legal settlement that required educating staff and students about responding to racism and harassment.
Wempner said she felt compelled to support Ebert after his critics sought to use her family’s lawsuit to justify his outster. In December, the Wempners and the school district settled the lawsuit, with each party agreeing to undisclosed terms.
Targeted: Gender identity, critical race theory
In campaigning to reshape the school board, Tri-County Citizens seized on wedge issues surrounding gender identity and cast children as victims of a reverse-racist plot to reshape Kiel using CRT.
“There are a lot of people in the area who are truly more conservative. They’ve lived in this community for a long time and like to see things stay the same,” said Eli Shaver, chair of the Calumet County Democratic Party. “But I think the extremism of the rhetoric and the subsequent bomb threats really caused a lot of those people to reconsider the positions of the people they had initially voted for, to the point where I don’t think those people will ever be snowed again.”
Jude Allen, a parent of two children in the district, said hostile rhetoric and misinformation prompted her to publicly support Ebert.
“I can say without hesitation I am one of many who would have remained quiet if these extremists hadn’t started spewing defamatory filth against our teachers and librarians,” Allen said.
The possibility that these dynamics would oust Ebert represented a local tipping point, said Shane Konen, who with his wife helped organize a group called Best For Kids to encourage more tolerance in Kiel.
“Until now, a lot of the political stuff in the community has been dealing in abstractions,” Konen said. “But this was about a real person that everybody knew and liked, with the exception of a select few, and that made the issue real for people.”
On January 18, the remaining school board members elected Dan Meyer as their new president. He said he looks forward to refocusing on education issues. But he considers the last two years of rancor lost time.
“What if all this time talking about CRT and false allegations of pornography in schools, about indoctrinating students, what if all that time was used for something positive—like having parents and grandparents reading to young students?” he said.
“We’ve wasted staff members’ time, we’ve wasted board members’ time. Now the hard work begins.”
Lianne Milton contributed photography for Wisconsin Watch.The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Mario Koran reports on education, immigration and issues affecting communities of color. Most recently, Koran was a 2021 Knight Wallace reporting fellow at the University of Michigan. Previously, Koran served as a west coast correspondent for the Guardian and spent five years covering education for Voice of San Diego, where he was named the 2016 reporter of the year by the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists. Since leaving an internship with Wisconsin Watch in 2013, Koran’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Appeal, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, among others. Koran holds a BA in Spanish literature and MA in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. firstname.lastname@example.org
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