Kelly Maday’s husband Eric Maday, a citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, warned her early on in their marriage that one day she would encounter the ugly reality of racism.
Kelly, who is White recalls thinking, “Well maybe, maybe not.”
“I see now that I was naïve.”
According to the Madays, their three children, who attend school at the Ashland School District in northern Wisconsin, were singled out and treated differently by school leaders regarding the school district’s COVID-19 response.
After their eldest son was suspected to have had close contact with another student who tested positive for COVID-19, all three Maday children were placed in isolation rooms at the school until their parents could pick them up.
The district’s policy of quarantining students is not applied equally, according to the Madays and their attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick.
From the beginning of the pandemic, the Madays have followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the school district recommended rules regarding use of masks, social distancing and quarantining those who have come into contact with COVID-19 individuals.
Although the CDC rules don’t require all household members of a person who has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine, it is highly recommended. The Wisconsin Department of Public Institutions, Ashland County Public Health and the Ashland School district are following best practices of requiring all household members to quarantine.
Kelly accepts the school district’s rules. What she and her family don’t accept, however, is the apparent inconsistency with which the rules are applied, an inconsistency that seems to favor White students, especially those involved with team sports.
Kelly, who lives in Ashland with her family about nine miles from the Bad River reservation, got a call from the school district’s nurse, Megan Kupzyk on Feb. 2 informing her that her eldest son had been in contact with a student who tested positive for COVID-19. He did not have any symptoms and has since tested negative for the virus.
Kelly agreed to have her son quarantined. The nurse told Kelly that the other two Maday children would also need to be quarantined despite the fact that none of the children displayed symptoms nor had tested positive for the disease.
At this point, Kelly objected. Why, she asked Kupzyk, did her other children have to quarantine since several other families in the district hadn’t had to do so in similar circumstances.
“This is a small community; everybody knows everybody’s business. So, I brought up several circumstances I knew of in which school board members’ children and members of the basketball and hockey teams, all White, didn’t have to quarantine despite contact with COVID positive students,” Kelly said.
According to Kelly, she told Kupzyk, “I will keep my older son home but my other two will remain in school. If you’re not enforcing it for other people, why are you doing it with my kids.”
Kupzyk told Kelly that it was a matter of school policy; all of her children would need to quarantine.
Shortly after the call ended, Kelly received a voicemail from Kupczyk that the Maday children had all been pulled from their classrooms, placed in isolation rooms and would remain there until someone picked them up. The children were in the isolation rooms for about 45 minutes until Eric Maday was able to get away from work to pick them up.
According to the Ashland School district’s published COVID-19 policy, schools maintain isolation rooms to be used for people actively exhibiting symptoms. None of the Maday children were exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
The Maday’s youngest, who is in kindergarten at the district, was very upset by the incident. She has cried daily and doesn’t want to return to school, according to Kelly.
“She is afraid of getting sick,” Kelly said.
“They (the district) pick and choose who has to follow their policies. The only difference we can determine between kids who had to quarantine (in similar circumstances) and mine are that mine are Native American.”
Kelly emailed school leaders including Superintendent Erik Olson, asking for clarification about the district’s policy and questioning why it was not applied equally. She cited several incidents in which other children exposed to the virus were not required to quarantine.
According to emails between the superintendent and the Maday family shared with Indian Country Today, Kelly wrote, “When I married my Native American husband 17 years ago I did not believe people discriminated against Native American's. He told me, ‘Honey, it happens and one day you will see it happen to one of our children and it will hit you like a truck.’ Today, that happened. I have no doubt my children were treated this way because of who they are and what their last name is. I am disgusted with our school district and will not rest until my children get justice.”
In his response, Olson noted that the Maday children were treated the same as other students who have been identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 positive person.
“For legal reasons, we cannot share with you information about other students and why or why not such students were subject to quarantine,” Olson wrote.
According to Kelly, Olson stopped responding to her emails asking for further clarification. Hurt and angry, the couple decided to hire an attorney. They hired civil rights attorney Spitzer-Resnick of Systems Change Consulting.
Spitzer-Resnick sent a letter to Olson on behalf of the Maday family. In his letter shared with Indian Country Today, he informed Olson and the district that he had been retained by the family.
In the Feb. 8 letter, Spitzer-Resnick asked the district to “engage in good faith negotiations or mediation to resolve this dispute.”
Neither the Maday family nor Spitzer-Resnick have heard anything from the district.
“I’ve rarely in 36 years of practicing law not gotten a response to what is called in legal jargon, a demand letter,” Spitzer-Resnick said.
In response to an email from Indian Country Today seeking comment, Olson wrote, “The District cannot comment on specific students or specific investigations due to the confidentiality of pupil records. Further, the District does not comment in response to threatened litigation per advice from our attorneys.”
According to Spitzer-Resnick, the Maday family’s main concern isn’t monetary compensation.
“Their main concern is to address and end this longstanding discrimination in the district. Apparently the Ashland School District doesn’t share this goal,” Spitzer-Resnick said.
Spitzer-Resnick is not surprised, however, by allegations of racial discrimination against the district.
“I’ve done a lot of work with various tribes and Native Americans over the years so I’m well aware of the centuries long legacy of discrimination in many parts of the state including Ashland and Bad River,” he said.
Since hiring an attorney and a Feb. 28 story in Wisconsin Examiner about their experience, the family has received words of support via text and social media but also a number of negative, insulting comments accusing them of making false complaints and urging them to keep quiet.
“We’ve had several Native parents contact us sharing stories of how the district has treated their children unfairly,” Kelly said.
“The data for Native American children in the Ashland School District is not good; there’s an excessive amount of discipline, suspension and low graduation rates among Native students,” Spitzer-Resnick said.
Although students of color make up about 30 percent of the school district, they received around 60 percent of all out-of-school suspensions from 2016-2020, according to the Wisconsin Department of Education.
In 2018, ProPublica built an interactive database based on civil rights data from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2015-2016 school year. The database examines racial disparities in educational opportunities and discipline for more than 96,000 schools. According to their data, although Native American students make up only 23 percent of students in the Ashland Middle School, they made up 67 percent of school expulsion rates.
A 2019 study by the Harvard Graduate of Education found that high rates of school discipline is tied to bad outcomes later in life such as arrests and incarceration. Male students of color are most likely to be affected.
“We intend on establishing that there’s a pattern or practice of discrimination against Native American children at the Ashland school district,” Spitzer-Resnick said.
Several Native parents have come forward with stories of how their children have been subjected to excessive discipline, suspension and other poor treatment within the district.
Gigi Cloud, a citizen and resident of the Bad River Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, described how in 2018 her son was placed on three days out of school suspension for vaping while a White student also caught vaping received a one day in-school suspension.
After being informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the Native American Club during his suspension, Cloud’s son grew angry. He punched his locker and “dropped the F-bomb,” according to Cloud.
The vice principal contacted police who issued a citation for disorderly conduct to her son in the amount of $263.
“He didn’t hurt anyone; he didn’t disrupt any classes. This was his first offense, yet they charged him as an adult,” Cloud said.
She eventually met with Olson who declined to expunge her son’s school record, according to Cloud.
Cloud’s son was so devastated over the incident that he eventually dropped out of school during his freshman year.
“He would have graduated this year,” Cloud said.
Currently, her son is working in Minnesota; she maintains hope that one day he will take the General Educational Development Test and earn his high school degree.
The Madays are working to file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Instruction and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, according to Spitzer-Resnick. Although they have no plans to file a civil lawsuit, the possibility is not off the table.
“Lots of people were saying we’re suing for the money. We don’t want any money from the school. We’re not after money. We want this to stop. I have never experienced anything like this before, it was an eye-opener for me as their mother,” Kelly said.
“I refuse to stop this until I know I did something to make a change and that it’s not going to happen again to someone else’s kid.”
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