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EC protesters decry racial injustice, demand change

EAU CLAIRE — Chants of “Black lives matter,” “No justice — no peace” and “Say his name — Jacob Blake” rang through the streets of Eau Claire on Saturday as several hundred people turned out to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

The two-hour protest came in response to Kenosha police officers on Aug. 23 shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back in front of his children. Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down, according to a family lawyer.

The event included speeches in Randall Park, a circuitous march to the Eau Claire County Courthouse and then more impassioned speeches and chants.

“This isn’t the first time a police department has shown they don’t care about Black lives; this isn’t the first time they tried to murder us in broad daylight,” Jazmine-Marie Cruz yelled to the crowd.

Cruz, who grew up in Kenosha and has lived in Eau Claire for the past 10 months, earned cheers from protesters when she called for defunding, reforming and retraining the police.

“If you don’t want protests, then do it right the first time. Take your hand off your gun. Take your knee off of our neck. Do your job,” she said. “If you take an oath to protect and serve, then protect and serve all citizens.”

The two-hour protest remained peaceful, as repeatedly requested by organizers, despite the presence of a handful of counterprotesters.

Two men in a blue pickup pulled up next to chanting marchers and waved a President Donald Trump flag out the window.

Asked why he attended, driver Dan Frandsen of Eau Claire, sporting a “Trump: Make America Great Again” hat, responded, “I’m sick and tired of Black lives matter. What about all lives matter? They’re the ones who are racist.”

One of the leaders of the protest, Rachel Pride of Eau Claire, said in an interview that such logic doesn’t make sense in a climate when so many Black people are the victims of police violence.

She equated it with neighbors crying “my house matters” if her house was on fire and firefighters didn’t respond to all nonburning houses in the neighborhood equally.

“We are getting shot. We are getting jailed. We are getting followed,” said Pride, who is Black and felt the sting of prejudice while growing up in Eau Claire. “I just want to live my life in peace. I’m (expletive) tired of it.”

Kendall McGinnis, who graduated in May from UW-Eau Claire and was involved with the Black Male Empowerment group on campus, said it was heartwarming to see the large turnout for the protest, especially in an overwhelmingly white community such as Eau Claire.

“It’s definitely frustrating that it keeps happening over and over and nobody is doing anything about it,” McGinnis said of what he described as unnecessary police violence against African Americans.

“I want the whole world to see this message,” he said, gesturing toward protesters calling for change.

David Carlson, Eau Claire regional organizer for the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Rights for All campaign, tapped into the pent-up frustration of the nationwide summer of racial unrest that has followed the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Over and over, Carlson led the crowd in a chant of “We’re not asking for change. We’re demanding it.”

UW-Eau Claire history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, who helped organize the protest, said the goal was to call for police reforms that can make justice for all a reality.

Ducksworth-Lawton, a member of the Eau Claire Police and Fire Commission who consults with the Eau Claire Police Department on racial bias issues, called for attendees to contact Eau Claire County supervisors and demand that the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office start using evidence-based policing. The approach, which is used by the Eau Claire Police Department, includes training about implicit bias and how to de-escalate tense situations.

She also encouraged the protesters, who wore masks in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus, to contact state and federal legislators to demand police reform.

Luke Seidel of the Eau Claire Justice League agreed, saying demonstrators need to follow through to ensure their calls for racial justice are heard and turned into action.

Ducksworth-Lawton was particularly pleased the Chippewa Valley protest, unlike some others around the country, included no violence or property damage.

“The eyes of the world are on us today because this is a peaceful demonstration,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “Eau Claire will show the nation how it’s done.”


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Will they play? Schools face looming deadline for fall sports decision

EAU CLAIRE — This week will be critical to prep athletes in Eau Claire County not in the terms of scores or standings, but whether they’ll play a fall season at all.

High schools face a Tuesday deadline to declare whether they’ll postpone football, volleyball and boys soccer to spring, but an updated local health order that will be issued a day later will also factor into how a fall sports season would be played in the county.

“Regis is going to make its declaration on Sept. 1,” said Paul Pedersen, principal of Regis High School.

The Catholic school in Eau Claire has held off on making an official decision, but Pedersen said it has been pushing ahead so far with the intention that student-athletes will play this fall.

“We haven’t had any internal conversations to do anything other than that,” he said.

Regis football players and their parents are worried that local public health orders will prohibit games from being played in the county.

The current order requires people that do not live in the same household stay at least six feet apart in public places “except for those contacts that are brief and incidental in nature.” Indoor events with more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of over 250 are prohibited by the order as well. The local public health order expires Wednesday, but is expected to be immediately renewed or followed by another order, as has been the case since mid-May.

Regis football players protested earlier this month outside of the Eau Claire County Courthouse — home of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. A group of parents have hired attorneys to fight the legality of what they see as a prohibition on certain sports but had not filed a lawsuit as of Friday.

Jenessa Stromberger, Eau Claire assistant city attorney, wrote an email on Wednesday to lawyers representing the parents — John Behling of Eau Claire and Matt Mayer of Wausau — responding to the argument that the health order infringes on First Amendment rights.

“Nothing in the order prohibits a football team or other modest size group from assembling to socialize, exercise, practice, express a view point, or even play with perhaps some modification of when and how for what the WIAA terms high-risk sports,” she said.

The local order carves out exceptions for “political assemblies, religious gatherings or other Constitutionally protected public gatherings,” but Stromberger’s email states that sports don’t fall under those categories.

“I’ve yet to see caselaw recognize football as protected by the Constitution,” she wrote. “While it and other athletics are important in many ways to many of us, hopefully we can avoid contesting whether football is a fundamental right superior to the substantial public interest in our health, safety and welfare during this pandemic.”

When asked for a response to Stromberger’s email, Behling said Friday that he’ll have to speak with his clients first before making a statement. A telephone message left on Mayer’s voice mail Friday was not immediately returned.

Stromberger concluded her email by stating the choice on postponing fall football is in the hands of school administrators.

“Ultimately, the decision on whether, when and how to play football is one for Regis to make with all due consideration,” she wrote.

Pedersen said the final call will be made with a focus on safely returning student athletes to sports using recommendations from the WIAA. Whether they’ll be playing in front of spectators is a consideration he said will need to be addressed at another time.

“That will have to shake itself out a little later, I think,” he said.

Picking a season

When Eau Claire public schools declared on Aug. 15 that they would move fall sports to spring, Pedersen said that did put pressure on other schools to announce their intentions.

While the county’s largest school district opted to take the WIAA’s option to postpone those sports, others have pushed on with a fall season.

Altoona schools already scheduled practices for the three high-risk sports, but athletic director Elissa Upward said the local public health order’s current restrictions will prevent games from being played in the county. Should that six-foot social distancing rule continue as the public health order is renewed or updated, school teams could still practice on their home turf but need to play games on fields and in gyms in other counties without the same restriction.

Fall Creek School District told the Leader-Telegram earlier this month that it intends to play this fall, and Augusta posted its football schedule for this season on Aug. 21 to the team’s Facebook page.

Most Wisconsin schools have already declared which season they intend to play the high-risk sports, but a portion are waiting until this week.

“It appears the majority are trying to go in the fall,” Todd Clark, the WIAA’s communications director, said on Friday as he reviewed the responses the sports association had gotten so far.

Specifically for football, 170 high school programs had told the WIAA that they would move forward with a fall season, while about 90, including Eau Claire schools, are opting for spring, according to Clark.

That still leaves about 160 prep football teams that had not yet announced which season they intend to play by Friday.

“People are having meetings, I think,” Clark said.

School administrators throughout the state will probably still be talking today with their athletic directors and local health officials before making their final decision on scheduling high-risk sports.

Clark called Tuesday’s deadline a “convenience date” intended so schools can schedule matchups based on other teams committed to play this fall, then plan transportation, reserve fields and make other preparations.

The WIAA designated Sept. 7 as the first day that volleyball, soccer and football teams can begin practice. Volleyball and soccer can begin playing games the week of Sept. 14, but the first football games won’t start until Sept. 23, per the WIAA schedule.

For schools that proceed with a fall schedule but have to cancel a substantial number of games because their team or others in their conference experience a coronavirus outbreak, the WIAA is letting them also play in spring.

“We’re going to be as flexible as we possibly can to move forward,” Clark said.

If football teams have more than half of their fall season canceled, the WIAA will have them play their remaining games in spring. However the organization’s board ruled that volleyball and boys soccer teams can play a full spring season if more than half of their fall season is canceled.


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Eau Claire school district delays virtual learning by a week

The Eau Claire school district has pushed back its virtual learning by a week, saying staff and teachers need more preparation time after hundreds more district families requested to move their students to the all-virtual option in August.

Virtual learning for all Eau Claire school district students will begin Sept. 8, the district said in a news release Friday afternoon.

The delay in virtual classes comes after a “continued increase” in students who wanted to enroll in the district’s all-virtual option, said Eau Claire schools superintendent Mike Johnson in an email to the Leader-Telegram.

Since the district’s Aug. 5 deadline for families to decide between the two options, the district has fielded more than 600 kindergarten through 12th grade requests to switch to all-virtual classes rather than the hybrid model, Johnson said.

Directly after that August deadline, about 18% of Eau Claire school district families said in a survey they chose the school district’s all-virtual option when asked to choose between all-virtual and a hybrid model for the 2020-21 school year.

“The teachers need more time to prepare for these requests,” Johnson said.

“These classes require scheduling logistics and instructional preparation, as well. It is easiest to accomplish this task before the start of school; this will benefit both our students and staff to have an extra week of planning and preparing for a great start.”

The change won’t impact in-person, face-to-face classes, which are still slated to begin on Tuesday and Thursday this week for some student cohorts.

The district said in the news release: “Many of these staff members have moved into new virtual roles in recent days to better accommodate the number of families requesting a fully virtual option to begin the school year. This time will benefit both students and staff to prepare for a great start.”

The new virtual learning schedule will also apply to students in the Eau Claire Virtual School.

Next week’s schedule for elementary students is:

• Cohort A: Students will pick up technology devices on Tuesday. There will be no in-person learning on this day. These students will begin in-person learning Sept. 8.

• Cohort B: Students will begin in-person learning and receive their devices on Thursday.

• Cohort C (virtual only): Students will pick up their devices on Monday and begin learning on Sept. 8.

• Cohort D (grades 1-2): Students will begin in-person learning and receive their devices on Thursday.

Next week’s schedule for middle and high school students is:

• Cohort A: Students will begin in-person instruction on Tuesday.

• Cohort B: Students will begin in-person instruction on Thursday.

• Cohort C (virtual only): Students will pick up devices on Monday and begin learning on Sept. 8.

Parents who have questions or don’t know what cohort their students are enrolled in should contact their school as soon as possible, the district said.

“As we get ready to provide both in-person and virtual instruction to our students this fall, we are asking for a little more time to ensure we can deliver the best possible learning experience during this challenging time,” Johnson said in a statement. “While this school year will certainly be unusual, we are confident that we will be able to offer a high level of rigor and quality, just as our families have come to expect of ECASD. We appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding as we work to make that happen.”

The Eau Claire school district isn’t the only western Wisconsin district to delay some of its instruction. The Thorp school district announced this week it would delay the opening of its schools by two weeks because several staff members had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Eau Claire district’s decision to delay was not spurred by cases of COVID-19 in teachers or staff, Johnson said Friday.