Though few young people were present, around 170 people showed up to the second community forum at Baraboo City Hall Thursday night to discuss what steps should be taken after a viral photo showing local high school boys displaying gestures associated with white supremacy.
Alex Paulson, one of the organizers, encouraged participants to speak honestly throughout the event despite any discomfort they might feel.
“Tonight, we’re going to be having very difficult conversations,” he said. “I invite you to be brave and try to stay engaged in the conversations.”
The goal of Baraboo Talks, which was planned by school, community, civic and faith leaders, was to identify concrete steps the community can take to improve. Attendees could choose to participate in three 15-minute discussions on the following topics: immediate safety; restorative justice; deeper learning; moving forward; leadership, policy and accountability; inclusivity; and communication.
Sixteen-year-old Baraboo resident Alice Wenzlow was one of the youngest participants. She used to attend Baraboo High School, but transferred to a private school at the beginning of this year. She’s also Jewish and wanted to add to the voices at Baraboo Talks to provide a different perspective than most other residents.
“This has been kind of a huge thing for me,” she said, adding that she thought the community’s response has been “disturbing.” Some people have been brushing the photo off or focusing on the wrong things, but they need to accept accountability, Wenzlow said.
She described BHS as having a “culture of casual racism,” where students use racial slurs and some yelled “white power” in the hallways after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
While she appreciated the event for helping people talk about the impact of the photo, Wenzlow said she still sees “a lot of miscommunication” happening.
There were no participants in a group dedicated for Spanish speakers. Paulson wrote in an email that another event is currently being planned to engage the Spanish-speaking community.
“It is a ‘yes, and’ approach: Ensuring we provide accessibility at all public functions and making concentrated and concerted efforts to hear from as much of the whole community as possible,” Paulson wrote.
Community leaders and organizers will review suggestions gathered during Baraboo Talks to create short- and long-term plans for both students and the larger community, according to Paulson.
The resulting community action plan will be presented and adjusted at the third event, Baraboo Acts, which has yet to be scheduled.
School board members Mike Kohlman, Gary Cummings, Kevin Vodak and Nancy Thome attended the event as observers, as did Baraboo District Administrator Lori Mueller and other district leaders. They listened to group discussions, but did not participate. Kohlman declined to comment afterward.
Holly Henderson, school district communications specialist, gave an unofficial estimate of between 170-200 attendees.
Mayor Mike Palm introduced the event by reading his mayoral proclamation “Baraboo United Against Hate,” which he first read at the Baraboo Gathers event Nov. 19.
Described by facilitator Marc Seals as “more of a healing process and less punitive,” the concept of restorative justice requires wrongdoers to seek to correct their behavior and make amends.
One suggestion was for students in the photo, the photographer and/or parents who were present to write an open apology letter, said facilitator Kelly Dwyer. Another, citing secrecy from the school district, called for the district to talk with the public and detail what has been done so far about the issue — for example, whether administrators or teachers have spoken to the pictured boys.
Dwyer listed ideas on which leaders could take action, such as articulating to the community why the photo is offensive, especially to those who feel it’s been blown out of proportion, and pursuing whether anything has been done about bullying in schools.
Bob Johnson of Baraboo told the group that he sees the photo issue as “mainly a problem of publicity.” Other problems, such as school shootings, deserve more worry, he said, suggesting a grassroots discussion group meet regularly to keep participants from feeling alienated, as well as keep an eye on people who might become dangerous.
“My granddaughter, who’s in high school, assures me there’s no neo-Nazi group, no blatantly racist group in school,” Johnson said.
Rhea Ewing, who recently moved to Fitchburg but lived in Baraboo for the better part of the last 10 years, pushed back on the rosy picture Johnson presented.
“The community you’re describing — I want to live there. That sounds amazing. I never did,” Ewing said.
“During my time living here, I received consistent harassment from the community at large for being read as ‘queer,’” they continued, describing a range of harassment from being yelled at by strangers in cars to “actual, vivid death threats.” “Even though I never attended the high school, I wish I could say I was surprised when I saw that photo.”
Ewing wants people in Baraboo to acknowledge the photo isn’t just displaying a problem with a few boys — though they added the boys should face restorative justice.
“From my perspective, this is a failure of the community, of the adults,” Ewing said. “This isn’t a publicity problem. And while I respect that our differences — even though this is such a small community — our differences and how we experience that community can be so vast.”
Baraboo is the first place where Ewing felt at home, making the recent controversy “very painful, but also cathartic,” they said, because now these issues are out in the open.
Several people throughout the night expressed concern over students’ safety. During a discussion on immediate safety, one participant cited recent unsubstantiated threats of a school shooting, which she said she didn’t know about until after her children were at school.
Christina Olson, facilitator of the immediate safety topic, said district staff have an app to use in case of a crisis that will inform other employees of the situation. She suggested the app, or a similar one, could provide a faster way to inform parents of a potential threat.
Another attendee suggested students should receive education about social media starting at a young age.
Olson said her groups talked about extra counseling services being offered at the middle and high schools, as well as ways to help all students feel safe. Actions included teaching parents to recognize signs of trauma in their children, showing them where they can get counseling services and educating students and staff about recognizing their own biases.
Teaching responsible social media literacy also came up during discussions on deeper learning, according to facilitator Jori Ruff, a Baraboo teacher.
Ruff said participants suggested weekly discussion groups spanning all ages, training on diversity and other events for community enrichment at various venues around the area.
One attendee said groups from nearby cities should be asked to speak in Baraboo to help educate the community on issues such as racism. Another idea was to bring a traveling exhibition on the Holocaust to Baraboo.
“We have to understand how our actions affect others,” Ruff said.
Facilitator Keri Olson said there were more than 20 people in each of the three “dynamic groups” on moving forward. She noted many of the topics they discussed overlapped with the other topics.
“When you’re talking about moving forward, I think that is — what I believe I was hearing is that we’re all still kind of stuck in a particular space,” Olson said. “Some of that is because we don’t have as much information as we wish that we had.”
One way to move forward, her groups suggested, would be to have as much of the whole story as possible. Olson added that participants wanted to hear apologies from those in the photo, but also wanted to avoid an “us vs. them” mentality. They suggested finding a way to tell the positive stories about what the community is doing to reshape the view the rest of the world has of Baraboo.
Leadership, policy and accountability
Gene Dalhoff, facilitator, said he repeatedly heard participants asking for better communication. They aren’t aware of what policies or ramifications are in place to address bullying or hate crimes, Dalhoff said, nor is it clear how to report such issues as a victim.
He said students who spoke in his group expressed uncertainty about what’s being done about the photo, showing the district needs a policy to address communications with students.
One participant said society has to define when speech becomes violent and should no longer be protected by the First Amendment; he argued students in the photo were sending a violent message. Baraboo District Administrator Lori Mueller has previously stated the district “is not in a position to punish the students for their actions” due to the constitutional guarantee of free speech.
Several suggestions from the inclusivity discussion group included bringing outside perspectives into Baraboo to help make sure “all voices are around our table,” said facilitator Lisa Newberry.
Others suggested teaching people to examine their own biases and recognizing the diversity that already exists here.
“We need to know what it looks like when bigotry and microaggressions are happening,” Newberry read from her notes.
Reiterating many of the ideas covered earlier, facilitator Scott O’Donnell said his group wanted to know the context of the photo and hear the story — as well as some kind of apology — from those involved.
A single representative to speak for the community was also suggested. O’Donnell said it seems like there have been a lot of responses from different entities within the community, but no clear, centralized voice.
“This topic came up a lot, which is ‘leaders need to talk,’” O’Donnell said, even when they don’t have all the answers. He noted the main form of communication from institutions has been through press releases.
O’Donnell said one message participants want communicated is: “We were proud to be from Baraboo before, and that we’re even more proud to be from Baraboo now, because of how we are responding to this incident.”