HARTLAND, Wis. — Chase Eastman woke up at 5:30 one morning this month, relieved that the second of the five alarms he had set had stirred him. He pulled on the rainbow-cuffed hoodie he had worn every day in June, and, with the notes he would need for his science final tucked into his backpack, climbed into the car, determined to make his feelings very, very visible.
A 15-year-old freshman at Arrowhead High, Chase can’t drive himself, so he sat in the passenger seat as a parent drove and beds of wild daisies flew by outside the window. He was about to join his first protest. At 6:45 a.m., a school board committee was going to take up a proposed policy that would ban anything deemed “race-dividing” or “promoting a sexual or gender preference” from the walls of this high school in the conservative Milwaukee suburbs. If the policy passed as written, Black Lives Matter posters, Pride flags, and “safe space” stickers would all be taken down or scrubbed away.
Chase had been bullied before, like many of his friends in the Gay Straight Alliance at Arrowhead, and safe space stickers had lit the way toward a teacher he could trust to help him.
“If they’re starting to take down those things telling us we’re safe and OK,” he said, “I’d just be scared.”
Chase and a friend, Cat Cummings, had decided they needed a plan to stop the policy. Cat got rainbow pins online, hoping they would draw more attention to their cause. They hung up posters in the hallways to advertise an online petition started by Chase, putting up two more every time one got ripped down. And now they were going straight to the board, raising their own voices against an elected body that has lurched to the right as well-funded conservative groups here and across the country have pushed to remake education.
Classrooms all over have been turned into ideological battlegrounds, and the movement has arrived here in full force.
As the Eastman family car pulled up outside of the low-slung district office, Cat was already there, maroon hair glinting in the sunshine, asking who wanted handwritten signs like one with the Taylor Swift lyric, “Shade never made anybody less gay.” So too was Ali McCloud, sporting a backpack and denim overalls. And Kieran Resch, who had already graduated, but showed up in a rainbow-striped shirt, hoping to make his school just a little better for the kids who would come after him. As they wrapped themselves in rainbow flags, lined up outside the door with their signs, and beamed at the local television cameras, Chase felt proud, even though it was not clear to the students whether the adults inside the boardroom really cared to listen.
“They know what they’re doing,” said Mitchell Mathews, a just-graduated senior in the Gay Straight Alliance who has tried to fight the board’s conservative policies with little success, in an interview before the protest. “They’re trying to erase this culture from the school.”
Meanwhile, inside, the School Board members had taken their seats at a huge rectangular table, and the new proposal — known as Draft Policy 335 — glowed on their laptops. A conservative member named Chris Farris, who joined the board in 2021, spoke first, saying that the signs acknowledging students’ differences would further divide them.
“We are one team,” he said, “There’s no division between gender, sexes, races, anything.”
The new policy, if it passes, will be the latest win for the conservative majority on the Arrowhead Union High School Board of Education, which has waded further into hot-button issues in recent years after Republicans rallying around “parental rights” and transparency began winning seats amid the COVID-related battles over masks, vaccines, and in-person schooling. With the help of the local GOP and national groups, this new crop of candidates has expanded to take over nearby school boards, too, posting victories that have turned this area, Waukesha County, into a laboratory for conservative efforts to change education. And they see what has happened here as an unmitigated success.
As these local school boards have passed policies echoing the emerging national themes, they have reshaped aspects of school life, and with striking speed. Some students and teachers living through the resulting changes have described a climate of fear, one they said has stifled their ability to learn, singled out students in marginalized groups, and sent seasoned educators heading for the exits.
“School seemed to slowly turn more and more into being about politics and society rather than education,” said Kieran Resch, the just-graduated senior who has urged the board, to no avail, to reject policies that he said would hurt transgender students like him.
“Now,” he added, “school is about politics and fear and the parents.”
The Boston Globe interviewed more than two dozen students, parents, and teachers in Waukesha County, seeking to examine the human consequences of the polarization of school life. Several teachers requested anonymity, fearing career reprisals for speaking to a reporter. Some students also wanted to go unnamed because they did not want to make themselves targets for bullying — a problem that has worsened, they said, as the School Board took up policies that, the students felt, could make life harder for LGTBQ students, at a time when national Republicans have trained their focus on curbing the rights of transgender and gay youth.
“It was definitely like being an ant under a magnifying glass,” said Roo, a just-graduated senior who identifies as nonbinary and asked to go by first name only. “They didn’t do anything to protect the kids at all.”
Waukesha County looms large enough in in the American political imagination that it has been featured on Twitter and in a New Yorker cartoon as an obscure but crucial election fulcrum; Wisconsin Republicans rely on these precincts to grind down the Democratic advantage in the narrowly divided state’s two big cities and eke out statewide wins.
For decades, the Republican Party apparatus here had left traditionally nonpartisan school board races alone. School Board members like Kent Rice, a retired home inspector who considers himself conservative, won reelection to the Arrowhead School Board with low-key campaigns involving $200 in funds and reused cardboard campaign signs, he said. But all of that changed when the Waukesha County Republicans decided to get more involved in local elections in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.
“They recruited a lot of people who I would consider to be ultra-conservative. They ended up wiping out a lot of people,” Rice said. “They literally had a machine.”
Terry Dittrich, the chairman of the Waukesha County GOP, said the party was looking, at the time, for a way to show hyper-engaged supporters of President Donald Trump that they were advancing conservative causes locally.
“A lot of these people were not diehard Republicans. They came to the table and supported our efforts because they saw we were working for Trump,” Dittrich said. “Our feeling was, we needed to do something to connect with those folks.”
In late 2020 and early 2021, Dittrich and his GOP colleagues began examining members on the boards of the county’s 19 school districts and other local offices, where elections are held in April, and “analyzed who were conservative and who were not,” he said, realizing his party could do more. Through an initiative they created called WisRed, they went looking for candidates: vetting them with questions about “conservative issues” then training them and helping them file. There is also a PAC that has raised and spent tens of thousands of dollars.
At the same time, fights over mask and vaccine mandates had seemingly electrified conservative parents and put school administrators and educators under the microscope. Nationally, new groups like Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project furthered that cause, offering up endorsements or outside spending.
In 2022, three new WisRed-backed candidates, plus two incumbents with the group’s support, won seats on the Arrowhead board. Rice, the former board member, lost his seat.
All told, Dittrich says his candidates have won 381 out of the 426 races they have entered.
“I daresay that is the most successful local election initiative of any county in the country,” he said, dismissing the fierce protests that their gains have engendered.
“They can’t expect everybody to just roll over for their left ideas,” he said. “The bottom line is, they’re in the minority.”
The resulting policies have often echoed from one district to another. Arrowhead’s proposed policy 335, for example, is similar to a rule that had been implemented in a nearby district, the one governing schools in the city of Waukesha, two years before. That shift began with a letter the Waukesha superintendent and deputy superintendent sent to teachers in August 2021.
“We need to ensure that what is posted in our rooms does not act as a barrier to any student, nor serve as a divisive symbol among staff,” the letter said, calling for Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, “Anti-racist classroom,” and other displays to be removed.
A battle ensued involving teachers, administrators, and parents that some here say has changed the fabric of the community and what it means to be an educator here.
At times, new policy “seemed to be designed to force educators to second-guess everything that they did,” said Melissa Joy Tempel, who was placed on administrative leave after she complained on Twitter this year about the administration’s decision not to let elementary school students sing a song called “Rainbowland” at their spring concert. The superintendent has since recommended she be terminated, she said.
Amy Menzel, an English teacher for seniors in the district, said she was baffled and worried when she received the letter and read about the signage restrictions. Teachers couldn’t say they were anti-racist? And the Pride flag on her classroom wall? Would that have to go, too?
“There was fear,” she said. “You didn’t want to get in trouble for things.”
Feeling guilty, Menzel took her signs down and left only blank space behind. Another teacher, Monica Whaley, cried as she took down signs she saw as familiar and welcoming. She used goo-gone to scrape Pride flags off her district-provided laptop.
“It felt like I was turning my back on all the kids who were confident enough in themselves to be able to come out in the classroom,” said Whaley, who herself decided to come out at school. If she couldn’t have symbols of acceptance, she figured, she could be one.
But other teachers refused to comply, including one who was brand new to the district and had just hung a Pride flag on the wall, along with a sign declaring Black lives sacred.
“I told them I’m not about to look these children in the eye and say that who they are is controversial,” that teacher said. “My hands will not be taking that Pride flag down.”
The teacher was ultimately punished with a daylong suspension that December. And the flag was removed.
Menzel and Whaley both left the District of Waukesha. The teacher who was suspended departed, too, as have others. But the crackdowns have continued; in January, the board passed a strict “parents’ rights” resolution, and a directive on teachers’ personal clothing banned them from wearing rainbow lanyards.
“I myself am gay,” said one teacher, who swapped a striped rainbow lanyard for one with colored polka dots as a cheeky way of complying with the policy. “Where do you draw the line of saying, enough is enough, you’re also kind of going after me a little bit?”
The sense of alienation was also powerful among students. One who watched the conservative takeover in Waukesha decided she did not want to return to school when it reopened after the lockdowns of 2020. That student, who asked to be known only by her first name, Quinn, had just come out as transgender, and did not think a board consumed by debate over masks and critical race theory would protect her.
“I’m kind of used to it at this point, knowing my humanity is debated,” Quinn said. “As depressing as it is, it’s just a normal part of life.”
Quinn’s mother, Christina, said it had all sent the message that her daughter may never really be accepted in Waukesha.
“I don’t want to think about her moving away. But at the same time, it is becoming more evident that for her to be able to live as her true self, it’s not going to be around here,” she said.
As education issues loomed ever larger nationally, the new conservatives on the Arrowhead School Board moved quickly, installing a series of new rules, often plainly echoing policies imposed in other states or districts. First, in October 2021, came Policy 333, which banned “critical race theory” with language similar to restrictions taken up in states like Wyoming and Idaho.
Then came a fight over Policy 651, a rule that required parents to give explicit written permission for staff to call minor students by different names or pronouns they had not been assigned at birth.
“This is a policy based in transparency,” said board member Chris Farris at a contentious meeting on Sept. 14, 2022.
Students and parents had crowded into a school library where he spoke, warning that the policy would endanger the very students the board is charged with trying to protect.
One of them was Kieran Resch, who told his story. “The first two to three months that I identified as Kieran, I was not OK with telling my parents yet because that would completely flip my whole world upside down.” He said that he had gone to his teachers instead.
“If they hadn’t helped me through everything going on with my identity and in my head,” he warned, “I might not be here today.”
The board heard him out, then voted 8-1 to pass the new policy as some parents in the audience shouted out in protest.
For Resch, it felt like nothing less than a betrayal, one that he said forced teachers to misgender pronouns when addressing students or to use the names transgender students had left behind — a practice known as “deadnaming.”
“They took this group of students, singled them out, and made their identities public for people to use against them,” Resch said in an e-mail to the Globe. He said fellow students barked at him in the halls, a common form of teasing, and made fun of the Pride patches on his backpack so often that he decided to take them off. After the policy passed, to avoid the teasing, he said, he started sitting in his car before school, instead of the cafeteria.
Other students said it felt like the policy had left them more vulnerable and unprotected.
“They’re the School Board, they’re supposed to care, that is why they are there,” Roo, a nonbinary student, said.
The board’s push for “greater transparency” was shaping another aspect of education at Arrowhead, too: materials used in the classroom. The ban on critical race theory, for example, was vague enough that it left teachers wondering what else might run afoul of the rules.
For students, it meant some books began to disappear from school shelves. There was “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” which a senior-level English class was supposed to read before the administration discouraged it because accompanying materials discussed “white privilege.” Then, at a School Board meeting late last fall, members of the board said a list of possible titles for a sophomore year English class, which included novels about contemporary issues like mental health and school gun violence, was “extremely dark” and called for further review.
Mitchell Mathews, the former senior in the Gay Straight Alliance, said he was upset when he learned one of his favorite books, “The Hate U Give,” which is about a fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, had attracted more scrutiny. He tried to choose essay topics he thought wouldn’t get anyone into trouble.
“Because of this School Board, everybody’s on edge,” Mathews said.
Recently, the school superintendent received an anonymous complaint that accused Mathews’s teacher of breaking the school’s policies by teaching “Othello,” a 400-year-old Shakespeare play. The title character of the play is Black, and, in an effort to bring the message of the play into the present, Mathews’s teacher had shown the class a television segment about a Cheerios commercial with a mixed-race couple.
In April, the superintendent of the district, Laura Myrah, reported the complaint to the School Board Policy Committee, and warned them that the climate of scrutiny could cost them a good educator.
It would soon cost them Myrah as well. She announced her early retirement in December.
That morning at Arrowhead, Chase and his friends ended their protest about Policy 335 a little after 7 a.m., since they needed to be in their desks to take final exams by 7:20. But inside the packed boardroom, the meeting grew heated and emotional.
“What if our school had white lives matter stickers all over it? What if we had straight pride?” Farris asked, as some parents attending the meeting shook their heads at what they saw as a deeply inappropriate comparison. “If that doesn’t make any sense, the opposite doesn’t either.”
The issue seemed to scramble standard partisan lines. Craig Thompson, a board member who identified himself as a sympathizer with the Tea Party but is not backed by WisRed, pushed back hard against the idea of banning anything, including the Pride flags and safe space stickers in question.
“The American way is not banning stuff,” he declared.
The principal, Adam Kurth, argued that any signage that helped vulnerable students is worthy of staying on the walls.
“We have students who are walking around our school, trying to decide if being alive is harder —“ he told the board, as some parents’ eyes welled up with tears. “Being alone is tough. I have students trying to make a choice if that’s worth it.”
Ultimately, those arguments were not enough. The board voted 6-3 to refer the policy to its lawyer for further study; a revised version, which omits direct mention of rainbows, may be up for final approval in July.
Chase, who still has three more years at the school, plans to keep up the fight.
“We’re not just going to sit back,” he said, “and let it go through.”