Teacher reprimanded for saying students ‘too dark-skinned’ to play Lincoln

MARSHFIELD, Wis. — An elementary teacher was reprimanded five years ago after being accused of telling two boys they couldn't play the role of Abraham Lincoln in a skit because they were "too dark-skinned," according to newly released records.

The documents were turned over to the Marshfield News-Herald, part of USA Today Network-Wisconsin, in response to a public records request made after reports of a similar incident in 2016.  

Last year, two teachers violated the district's nondiscrimination policy while casting Marshfield High School's spring production of “The Sound of Music,” according to documents a judge ordered school officials to release.         

The newly released records show that 2016 was not the first time a teacher in this community of almost 20,000 people about 160 miles northwest of Milwaukee was found to have discriminated against students in casting.         

Documents: Read the records in the 2012 case

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In 2012, Pam Nikolai, who was a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, was issued a formal letter of reprimand from then-principal Todd Felhofer after a parent complained that Nikolai told two second-grade boys they couldn’t play the part of President Lincoln in a class skit because of their skin color. Instead, Nikolai gave the role to a student who was not in class at the time she asked for volunteers.

The newly released documents reveal the school district launched an investigation in February 2012 in response to Nikolai's comments.         

District officials interviewed eight students about the incident, according to the records. Five of those students, including the two boys involved, said they remembered Nikolai saying the boys couldn't play the part because they were "too dark-skinned."         

One student recalled Nikolai saying, "The person playing Lincoln should be white." Two students did not recall any such statement but remembered the two boys volunteering to play the part.         

The records note that one of the boys who volunteered to play Lincoln was emotional during the interview with investigators and said Nikolai’s comment made him “kinda sad.”

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The teacher denied the claim in an email to a school official, writing, "I contest any language in the letter that suggests I said or did anything to keep anyone from speaking the lines on the basis of race."         

In a written statement, Nikolai claimed she told one of the boys “You can’t” when he asked to read for the part of Lincoln because the period had ended and the students needed to collect their things and line up at the door. She said she was sorry if the student mistook her “haste to get class ready to go for something completely different.”         

In Nikolai's statement, she said that the class had been discussing historical accuracy and whether to keep the word "homely" in the script when referring to Lincoln. The related documents indicate that Nikolai suggested the students could have inferred something from that conversation to make them think she was referring to their skin color when she said "You can't."         

The boy cast as Lincoln already was assigned to play the role but was absent that day,  so she asked for a stand-in, Nikolai said in her letter.         

One student recalled Nikolai saying she gave the part to the other boy because he was tall and had dark hair, a comment that Nikolai also made in a meeting with school officials, according to the records.

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“I feel undermined, my reputation damaged, my job security threatened and it’s making me physically ill,” Nikolai concluded in her letter.         

Nikolai, who retired last year, did not return calls seeking comment.

She was directed to closely monitor her language, ensure no instructional decisions were made based on the protected class of students and apologize to the two boys involved in the incident, according to the letter of reprimand that Felhofer drafted.         

Reached by phone recently, Felhofer made no comment other than to say he agreed with the findings of the investigation.

Marlene Stueland, president of the Marshfield School Board in 2015 and not involved in the 2012 investigation, said teachers and staff need to be mindful of what they say to students. She said she does not condone these type of comments but understands that mistakes happen.         

Superintendent Dee Wells, hired in 2014, said the district put mandatory staff training to combat discrimination in place starting this year. To her knowledge no such training occurred in 2012.

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Wells said employees would receive training following the 2016 incident, brought to light when a parent complained that the cast of “The Sound of Music” did not reflect the school's diversity.          

Details specifying the exact nature of discrimination during the 2016 incident were not revealed in the documents to protect students' identities. However, an internal investigation conducted by Kimberly Ziembo, the district's director of teaching and learning, and Shana Lewis, the district's lawyer, found "substantial evidence" that teachers had violated the policy.         

They concluded that the high school teachers, Amanda Leurquin and Jennifer Smyth, did not intentionally discriminate; rather, they tried to cast the central characters, — the Von Trapp family — who looked alike.         

The teachers were not disciplined because the discrimination was not intentional, Wells said.

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