Dozens of students in Wisconsin’s Tomahawk School District are looking at truancy citations after walking out of classes last week in a protest against the school system’s stringent mask policy. Tomahawk Police Chief Al Elvins tells Empower Wisconsin the students will be cited, at the district’s request, and will each face a $98.60 fine.
The demonstrations began on May 3, with several students who demanded the district end its mandatory mask policy on school property. On May 5, approximately 50 students walked out after they were dissatisfied with what sources say was a fruitless meeting with the administration.
Ryan Hawley’s high school son walked out the first day of the protests, which was billed as a “No Mask Monday.” The small group of students was met by the school resource officer who told them to put their masks on and go back to class. All but two complied.
“They were told, ‘Either you can put your mask on or go home.’ One of them was my son. He was sent home at 8:30 a.m.,” Hawley said. Like several other parents in the district, Hawley stood behind his children’s cause.
More students joined the demonstration on May 4, with a half dozen or so being sent home, Hawley and other parents said, adding that Tomahawk administrators have been unyielding on the mask policy and have refused to listen to opponents.
The protest grew on May 5, after a meeting in which high school students were given 20 minutes to state their case. After the meeting wrapped up, students were told to put their masks on and head back to class.
“The whole point of the meeting was so we could show our input and our opinions and they completely threw that away and made us put masks on right after the meeting,” John Hawley, Ryan Hawley’s son, told WJFW-TV in Rhinelander. The student’s sister, who also goes to Tomahawk High, and his middle school brother also joined the demonstration.
Several parents said school officials threatened to have the demonstrators arrested or get social services involved. “The high school charged all the kids with truancy even though parents had called in to excuse their children’s absences,” Ryan Hawley said. “They were just being difficult and wanted to make an example out of the kids standing up for their First Amendment rights.”
Some students continued to protest May 6 and 7. The demonstrations stopped after the Tomahawk School Board put the mask policy on its May 11 meeting agenda. At the virtual meeting, students joined other residents speaking passionately about the issue, but some of their most eloquent points were lost in the buffering and other technical glitches of an online school board meeting.
District officials in recent weeks shut down another school board meeting after several residents showed up without face coverings. Several sources say a school administrator called the police and threatened to have anyone not wearing a mask arrested.
Elvins, the police chief, confirmed as much. “I was at home. He called me and asked for guidance,” Elvins said. “I said, ‘It’s a public meeting, open to the public. We are not enforcing people not wearing a mask. There was no crime committed. Now, if there had been disorderly conduct, that would have been a different situation. It’s not going to be used as an intimidation device.”
The police chief and others say the crowd left peacefully after the board canceled the meeting. The meeting subsequently was held virtually.
The May 11 meeting was not nearly as contentious, although it was clear the superintendent was not on board with any move to end the mask mandate. The board did agree to end the requirement on June 7 — the Monday after the end of the school year. But school board members plan to revisit the change at its next meeting, at the end of May.
Resistance to local mask orders appears to be on the rise after the state Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’s statewide mask mandate last month and as cases of COVID-19 continue to fall. Medford High School students walked out of class last month to protest compulsory face masks in school.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported last week, police officers dragged out a man who refused to wear a mask at a Cumberland School Board meeting. In Waukesha County, local officials have eased up on their quarantine rules in response to growing opposition.
Terry Reynolds, Tomahawk’s superintendent, did not return a phone message seeking comment, although he did tell the Rhinelander TV station that Tomahawk schools follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health Services, and local health recommendations. “They have indicated that [masks] provide the best opportunity to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our building.”
While infection rates among children ages 0 to 17 are rising, COVID-19 death and hospitalization rates in that age category remain extremely low. More than 90 percent of COVID-19-related deaths have occurred in people over 50.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of May 12, the virus had claimed 287 lives of children under 18 out of the more than 568,000 total deaths caused by COVID-19. Lincoln County (where Tomahawk is located) reported 22 active cases according to the most recent data available.
“This whole thing has gotten out of hand, and for what?” Ryan Hawley said, adding that he is “sad and sickened” by what he and other Tomahawk parents see as an abuse of power by school officials.