A parent accused Oconomowoc schools of teaching age-inappropriate material. The district threatened a defamation lawsuit.

·5 min read
The Oconomowoc Area School District's offices are located in a wing of the same building as Oconomowoc High School's East Campus.
The Oconomowoc Area School District's offices are located in a wing of the same building as Oconomowoc High School's East Campus.

The conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has sent a letter to the Oconomowoc Area School District on behalf of a local parent who said the district is trying to silence her for complaints about the district's use of what she called age-inappropriate instructional materials.

WILL sent the letter June 16 on behalf of Alexandra Schweitzer, an Oconomowoc parent, former school board candidate, and president of the Wisconsin chapter of the right-wing group No Left Turn in Education, who claimed there were age-inappropriate books accessible to students on their Chromebook laptops without parental notification. The books are titled "Gender Quest Workbook," "It's Perfectly Normal", and "Queer" and reference sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Schweitzer also said that another book, "The 57 Bus," which contains references to sexual orientation and gender identity, was read aloud in an eighth-grade classroom.

In a May 13 letter, attorneys representing the district, Mark Olson and Emily Turzinski, said statements Schweitzer made during testimony at a state Senate on Education Committee meeting, and in a letter regarding the district's curriculum and library materials, were false and defamatory. Olson and Turzinski are attorneys with the law firm Buelow Vetter Buikema Olson and Vliet.

WILL said in a news release that its letter is "making clear that (Schweitzer's) public statements do not meet the legal standard for defamation and that her speech is protected by the First Amendment."

When contacted by a reporter, the district referred questions to Olson. Olson said in an email Friday that the board would have a statement on the district website next week that "will address these issues."

According to WILL's news release, OASD's cease-and-desist letter threatened a defamation suit against Schweitzer "if she does not revoke public statements she made about classroom material and access to inappropriate material."

“If the school district wanted to silence me, they have failed," Schweitzer said in a statement. "School districts need to know that parents won’t back down and legal threats won’t deter us from looking out for our kids."

In its letter, WILL said that disagreement between parents and the district "should be addressed through public discourse and the political process, not by sending mothers intimidating letters on legal letterhead."

What is this OASD fight about?

Schweitzer and other parents raised concerns about the books being available for students on an app called SORA. In August 2021, Oconomowoc School Board President James Wood issued a statement saying the district had stopped its subscription to the app "due to the lack of the ability to personalize the collection to align with our OASD selection process and age guidelines," according to WILL's letter.

WILL said in September 2021, Schweitzer asked for a list of library books available to students. She received the list, but it did not contain "any books accessible on student Chromebooks and books used by the teachers but not available in the library." WILL said Schweitzer also continued hearing from parents "that the District was making age-inappropriate books available to students, including in class and via Chromebooks."

On Feb. 21, Schweitzer said parents of students attending Nature Hill Intermediate School told her that "The 57 Bus" was read aloud in class without parental consent, information she also shared at a public hearing of the Wisconsin Senate's Committee on Education meeting on Feb. 23.

On Feb. 22, Schweitzer asked the district about whether age-inappropriate books were still available for students. Wood didn't say whether the books were still available for students, according to WILL's letter.

However, Olson and Turzinski disagreed and said that Wood specifically addressed Schweitzer's allegations.

Schweitzer wrote in a May 2 newsletter for No Left Turn in Education that the Gender Quest Workbook "coaches kids that gender is 'a whole spectrum of possibilities' and encourages them to question their gender identity." She also said "It's Perfectly Normal" describes "sex acts, even providing graphic illustrations that clearly violate the will of the parents and blur the legal lines put in place to protect children." That newsletter was cited in the district's letter to Schweitzer.

"The District has made it abundantly clear that neither existing Board Policy nor practice in the District permits or encourages the use or dissemination of books, texts, or curriculum which address or promulgate the kinds of objectionable topics which are the basis of your unfounded allegations," Olson and Turzinski wrote.

Olson and Turzinski also said prior to Schweitzer's Feb. 23 testimony that she was told that "The 57 Bus" is a "mentor text" available only to teachers for checkout and use in instruction and "that only small portions of the text were read aloud for the purpose of critical thinking and writing craft." Olson and Turzinski said Schweitzer was provided a listing of the library books and said the books Schweitzer deemed inappropriate were not available for checkout nor used in the district's curriculum.

WILL said the district did not provide "adequate notice" to parents about the book. Additionally, WILL said that comments by the school's principal in his response to Schweitzer indicated the school serves students identifying as non-gender conforming in the eighth grade.

"This supports an inference that 'the very controversial gender/sexual identity issues currently being discussed in this country' were part and parcel of ('The 57 Bus's') use as Ms. Schweitzer said," WILL said in its letter.

Contact Alec Johnson at (262) 875-9469 or alec.johnson@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlecJohnson12.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Oconomowoc schools say parent's complaints over books are defamatory