CHIPPEWA FALLS (WQOW) - On Monday morning, the ACLU of Wisconsin filed a formal complaint against the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District.
The complaint is meant to give a voice to current and former students who say they've experienced discrimination during their time in the district, particularly on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation.
The ACLU filed a "Pupil Nondiscrimination Complaint" on behalf of Cultivative Coalition and several current and former Chi Hi students.
The complaint says "CFAUSD and its agents and employees have discriminated against students on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation, by causing, encouraging, accepting and tolerating a school climate hostile to students with these protected statuses."
The complaint goes on to outline various examples of the alleged harassment, and says the district "failed to provide targets of harassment the supportive services they need."
"The district seems to frequently ask kids who have experienced racialized or homophobic bullying to deal with the problem on their own, to be tough or to avoid the bully or figure out ways to solve the problem," said ACLU of Wisconsin attorney Elisabeth Lambert. "But that should be the district's responsibility."
The complaint calls on the district to provide anti-bias curriculum to students at all levels, training for staff on how to recognize and disrupt harassment, and to develop a policy for responding to harassment perpetuated by parents, community members and school visitors.
The district has 90 days to return a decision.
Lambert said the district could say 'yes, we did find there's discrimination happening and here's what we're going to do to solve it.'
If district officials say they did not find discrimination, then the ACLU says it will take the matter to the state Department of Public Instruction and have them take a second look at the situation.
Furthering our coverage of this issue, it's been three years since a former Chippewa Falls High School student was outed as lesbian, something advocates say can be harmful and damaging.
"Being outed is kind of the act of disclosing someone's sexual orientation or gender identity and expression before that person is ready," said Hazel Behling, co-founder of Cultivative Coalition.
Hazel Behling was a senior at Chippewa Falls High School in 2018. What was supposed to be a year of good memories, turned into a nightmare.
"I hadn't planned to come out, but in March of 2018, I was outed by the parents of another student in the school cafeteria and that was in front of hundreds of other students," Behling said.
Behling said her secret spread like wildfire, and soon, she was being harassed.
"The parents (who outed me) would threaten my parents. They called and told them on multiple occasions that they had staff members inside of the school watching me. So that was pretty terrifying."
And she said the harassment extended beyond school.
"I was confronted multiple times by the pastor, the youth pastor of the church, who also wanted to try and 'put me on the right path.' He gave my friend a book about how to help me get back on the right path, meaning how to be straight basically."
Behling believes school administrators barely helped, and even perpetuated the problem.
"I was called out of school by the school resource officer as well and the principal. I was called out of class by the school counselor and told that if I didn't repent my sins of being gay, I would go to hell," Behling said. "At one point, I was basically having panic attacks pretty much on a daily basis. I probably only attended two to three days of school each week by the end of my senior year."
Dan Bennett-Hardy with the Chippewa Valley LGBTQ Community Center in Eau Claire said Behling is not the only one who has experienced bullying or harassment for her sexuality.
"Even though I wasn't even out, people bullied me because of my perceived sexuality," Bennett-Hardy said.
Bennett-Hardy emphasized that being outed, or out in general, can be dangerous.
"It really kind of runs the gamut from being teased to bullied to being kicked out of the house to self-harm," Bennett-Hardy said.
According to the 2019 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 42% of students who are LGBT have seriously considered suicide, but only 19% of LGBT students say they received the help they needed when in emotional distress.
"I wanted administration to take my concerns seriously and to protect their students. I was told that it was my job to stay away from these, this family that had been harassing me. That it was my job to stay away from this pastor. They did nothing to stop these harmful people off the school property," Behling said.
Bennett-Hardy said in order to help reduce bullying or harassment towards the LGBTQ community, we need to be more openly supportive.
"Allies, straight, heterosexual, cis-gender allies need to make it commonplace to say I support everyone regardless of sexual identity and gender expression," Bennett-Hardy said.
Because of her experience in high school, Behling started a social media-based social justice organization called Cultivative Coalition with three other Chi-Hi graduates.
"We started Cultivative Coalition to give a space for marginalized individuals who are still in the school," Behling said.
The organization hopes to increase mental health training in the district and have more counselors and social workers educated in diversity and inclusion.
"LGBTQ liberation can't happen without Black liberation. Can't happen without Asian liberation. Can't happen without Native liberation. All of these marginalized communities, disabled community, religious minorities, we all need to be building each other up and helping each other out," Behling said.
News 18 also reached out to both the district and the Chippewa Valley Bible Church for comment.
In a written response, Superintendent Jeff Holmes said they are still investigating the incident to this day.
You can find full statements from both the school district and Chippewa Valley Bible Church below.
ACLU complaint to Chippewa Falls Area Unified School DistrictChippewa-Falls-Pupil-Nondiscrimination-Complaint_Redacted
Chippewa Falls School District Response
"Thank you for reaching out to us. At this juncture, I’m not able to provide an on-camera interview. I want to begin by explaining why that is important and hope that you will consider accounting for our concerns as you investigate and develop this story.
The controversy over how specific LGBTQ students have been treated and how related issues have been addressed in our District began with an individual student’s report and has grown immeasurably because of a continuing, ongoing attack on our District by anonymous sources. This places the District in an extremely delicate position.
Pupil record information is confidential under state and federal law. Protecting pupil confidentiality and “personally identifiable information” that would reasonably tend to identify pupils is a District responsibility under the law. As a result, when student(s) talk or write about their experiences in school, their comments almost always implicate behavioral information, medical information, academic performance, or other information and/or records that school districts are required to keep secret.
Consequently, it is important for our constituents and the public generally to understand that the District is not in a position to defend itself as it normally would when it comes to accusations made by current or former student(s). We may have information about the student(s) and the events that they are referencing, but we are not permitted to provide that information to anyone. We certainly cannot share that information with the public, merely to explain why the student(s)’ accounts are incorrect, incomplete, or just plain false.
The District has similar concerns about published anonymous complaints. Publishing anonymous claims accusing the District and its personnel of discrimination or bigotry, or publishing complaints that specific District employees misused their office to proselytize to students is irresponsible. The District can investigate and determine—as it has—that members of our staff roundly dispute these claims. We can also note that available evidence fully supports our employees’ reports.
In fairness, however, we can’t interview anonymous complainants or take any of the many other steps that we might when we investigate charges against District personnel. Of equal concern is the fact that anonymous complaints smear individuals who are identified by name, but their own anonymity prevents the District from completing a full investigation and taking prompt remedial action where it is called for. Even if these complaints were true—and to the best of our knowledge, they are not—anonymous complainants of this sort deprive the District of the ability to correct the problem they are complaining about in the first place.
I appreciate your forbearance, but I wanted to make clear why the District has a duty not to comment on pupil information and how that affects our ability to respond to questions from our media partners. I also wanted to make absolutely clear that this continuing diet of published, but anonymous attacks is unfair to our District and its employees.
However, I would like to provide you with the District’s written response to questions you’ve asked. This will help us to be responsive to your inquiry, but with a fair chance to make sure our answers are consistent with our obligations to students under the law.
Your questions and our answers follow:
How did the district handle Hazel Behling's concerns/incident?
When this matter came to the attention of the District’s administration in 2018, the Human Resources Director was called in to conduct an investigation into Hazel’s allegations. Some aspects of Hazel’s accounts were substantiated and the District addressed related concerns (i.e., employee accountability and campus access) to the fullest extent possible.
However, and with due respect, Hazel has either omitted important details in her account of this matter or those details were edited from her story before it was published. To be clear, critical details have been omitted; we simply cannot be sure by whom. However, we cannot provide those details due to pupil confidentiality requirements.
Even though it's three years later now, are you still investigating this incident?
Yes, we are. When it is appropriate to begin or resume an investigation based on new information, we will do so.
Please be assured that we actively review matters of this nature and are reviewing the issues that have been raised. We believe in District policies that have been implemented to support and protect members of our LGBTQ community. Those policies inform our professional work and call for us to actively look into any reasonable claim. Consequently, the District is committed to pursuing new leads and information if it will help to identify and resolve issues under our discrimination policies, regardless of whether we receive a complaint or find information through our own initiative.
However, our policies on discrimination are truly effective only if students actively seek out District personnel, report what they are seeing, share their feelings, or contribute to our efforts in some other way. We also would ask everyone to understand that there may be any number of reports and/or perspectives from any number of different sources on these matters. The right procedure and basic fairness to all concerned requires that the District carefully consider whatever information is available, and follow up or develop additionalinformation when necessary to get the facts right. This is the District's responsibility and we take that responsibility very seriously.
In general, how do you handle situations like these?
The District follows the law, District policies, and the guidelines that we have in place. These are comprehensive and provide for full consideration of all reports and perspectives. Generally, we need to talk to everyone involved, gather related evidence, and make decisions about what seems most likely to have occurred, and then take prompt, remedial action.
We also are continuing our efforts to include a broad cross-section of individuals and groups in reinforcing our policies. The District is committed to doing its part, yet developing a culture where all students feel safe and respected requires everyone’s efforts.
Everyone’s patience and understanding while we address these matters is greatly appreciated. Our goal is to be a truly inclusive public school district that meets the needs of all students."Jeff Holmes, Superintendent
Chippewa Valley Bible Church Response
"Based on a recent blog post, we have become aware of several allegations of mistreatment from a former Chi-Hi student named Hazel Behling, who alleges that she was harassed and belittled during her senior year of high school due to her sexual orientation. In particular, she accuses a CVBC member and our youth pastor, Alan Dunham, of participating in this alleged mistreatment.
As a church, we do not condone the harassment or demeaning of anyone for their sexual orientation or for any other reason, and we would condemn any such behavior by members of CVBC. Because of this, we regarded these allegations as very serious and looked into them as soon as we became aware of them.
We particularly focused on the allegations against Alan Dunham, as he is a pastor and staff member at our church. After carefully examining Hazel’s allegations, the totality of the facts, as we understand them, do not at all support Hazel’s allegations, and to the contrary, appear to represent a gross mischaracterization of Alan’s behavior and interactions with her. Specifically:
- Alan worked concessions at several girls soccer games in the spring of 2018, but this was to fulfill his volunteer obligations as a parent of a student-athlete. Hazel’s role on the team was not a factor in his volunteer sign-up, and during his time working concessions, he did not speak to or otherwise interact with Hazel.
- Alan also attended a girls soccer game in Wausau that season, but this was at the request of his daughter who had friends on the team. It is untrue that Alan had no connection to the team, as the team contained both friends of his daughter and also girls who attended the CVBC youth group. Alan did not speak to or interact with Hazel at any point during that game, and most certainly never “silently taunted” her from the sidelines.
- Hazel alleges that Alan and CVBC were engaged in an ongoing campaign of surveillance or intimidation against her. This is simply untrue. The reality is that Alan only interacted with Hazel a few times during her entire time in high school, mostly at gymnastics meets where his daughter was a member of the team and Hazel served as team manager. He did not tell Hazel that people in the school were watching her, as she alleges. He does acknowledge asking her if she was seeing anyone in Madison when he spoke with her in 2019.
-Alan does not run the Chi-Hi Fellowship of Christian Athletes as Hazel indicates. He has been an invited speaker at FCA several times, but never encountered Hazel at an FCA event. Alan does not proselytize on school grounds and respects the rules in place for visitors to the Chi-Hi campus.
We have not found any evidence that Alan singled Hazel out in any way, and we are shocked that such serious allegations would be made with such little regard for the facts of the situation. We took these accusations seriously, just as we seriously consider our calling to be a loving church that reflects our God. We share in the desire for Chippewa Falls to be a safe community, free of harassment, and Hazel’s fabricated accusations against our church do not contribute to that effort."Chippewa Valley Bible Church elders