School counselor Marissa Darlingh, who publicly insisted no transgender students would transition under her “watch,” is now on administrative leave from Milwaukee Public Schools pending an internal investigation, according to board president Bob Peterson.
Some say the district should go further. About 40 teachers, students and community members led by the Black Educators Caucus marched from district offices to Darlingh’s home Saturday, chalking their demands for the district to better support trans students as some called for Darlingh to be fired.
“As educators, we can’t be oppressing the youth,” said Olimpia Garcia, an incoming teacher at Reagan High School. “That’s part of our job description to support them and not to oppress them.”
Darlingh made the remarks at an April 23 anti-trans rally outside the state Capitol, introducing herself by name and occupation on a microphone before stating:
“Not a single one of my students, under my (expletive) watch, will ever, ever transition socially and sure as hell not medically. Absolutely not.”
She went on to say, “(Expletive) transgenderism. (Expletive) it.”
Days later, the state Department of Public Instruction notified Darlingh it was investigating whether there were grounds to revoke her educator license for “immoral conduct,” based on her remarks. The investigation is still open.
In an interview Friday, Peterson said MPS had launched its own internal investigation of potential misconduct and he believed Darlingh was put on leave Wednesday — the last day of school for her building, Allen-Field Elementary on the south side.
Darlingh could ultimately be fired, cleared of wrongdoing, or disciplined with a suspension or letter in her staff file, Peterson said, depending on the result of the investigation and legal advice through the city attorney’s office.
Darlingh did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest development.
She is being represented by attorneys from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), the conservative law firm that also represented students in Kiel who were under investigation for not using a student’s correct pronouns.
The cases come amid a flurry of Republican bills across the country targeting transgender students’ participation in sports, access to health care, and ability to identify their own names and pronouns.
Protesters rally at Darlingh’s house
Since Darlingh’s initial comments in April, she has stood by her words.
Outside a house listed as owned by Darlingh in city records, a chalk message has persisted for days: “Protect kids from trans.”
On Saturday, the group of protesters brought their own chalk, leaving messages outside the district’s central offices before walking to Darlingh’s house to chalk her sidewalks.
Darling did not make an appearance. The group chalked messages including “We (heart) all our kids” and “Protect trans kids.” They edited the existing chalk to say, “Protect kids from Marissa.”
Part of the group was 14-year-old Devon Weber, who said they came to protest because they are a non-binary MPS student and worried about how Darlingh could impact trans students’ wellbeing.
“Suicide rates are much higher in trans people and trans youth, and if you have somebody who isn’t supportive at all, then that’s why that happens,” Weber said. “When people tell you that you’re wrong, that you’re bad, that you’re different — that’s not good; that’s why that happens.”
Elle Halo, a board member for Diverse & Resilient speaking at the rally, said she was bullied in school and continues to fear for her life and for the lives of other Black trans women who are “targets for violence, theft, harassment and assault. ”
“Is this what y’all want, for our bodies and minds to be under constant attack?” Halo said. “Is this what y’all want for your youth? More runaways, more suicides, more abandonment?”
Black Educators Caucus demand action
The Black Educators Caucus published a list of demands and asked supporters to email MPS board members about them.
They have called for board members to review MPS’ non-discrimination policy at a June 28 committee meeting and agree on an advisory board of majority Black and brown queer, trans and gender non-conforming students, staff and community members to shape the policy.
They also called for mandatory training for staff and students, and unisex facilities in schools.
Peterson said the agenda for June 28 was already set, though he was open to considering the group’s points.
Peterson said he wasn’t sure if the district provides any training for staff about supporting trans students. MPS administrators have not answered questions from the Journal Sentinel about training or granted interviews.
Peterson said he was “very disappointed” when he heard Darlingh’s remarks and supported the internal investigation but deferred any conclusion about whether she should be dismissed.
“That is not something that I like to hear from an employee of the school district,” Peterson said. “But I wasn’t there. I’m deferring to the pending investigation.”
Peterson also said he would look to the district’s new Gender and Identity Inclusion Office for guidance on policy changes.
“As with any large institution with 10,000 employees, there’s probably some need to work against homophobic and anti-trans sentiment amongst some people, but that’s one reason we set up our new department,” Peterson said.
That office was launched this past school year based on a proposal from board member Jilly Gokalgandhi for a program that would support female and LGBTQ+ students as a companion to the existing Black and Latino Male Achievement program.
In an update shared with the school board June 7, office director Ebony Lewis said the program had provided LGBTQ+ training for about 145 staff at 14 schools, and helped to create and sustain student organizations for LGBTQ+ students at 20 sites.