MILWAUKEE –– Messmer Preparatory Catholic School at 3027 N. Fratney St. was vandalized Thursday, Aug. 25, and parents were threatened by protesters surrounding the school Friday morning, Aug. 26, before Gov. Scott Walker’s scheduled visit, according to a press release from the school.
Gov. Walker’s visit to the K4-8 campus, which included a student welcome, tour and book reading to second- and third-grade students, was meant to “highlight early reading and literacy programming” in the Catholic school system that educates Milwaukee’s urban youth.
The release said school officials were informed Thursday night that the building alarms were set off, and discovered Friday morning that nine locks on exterior doors, including a parking gate, doors to the building and a church building door, were sealed with glue. Capuchin Br. Bob Smith, president and CEO of Messmer Catholic Schools, which include Messmer High School and the K4-8 St. Rose and St. Leo School, told your Catholic Herald Monday that opening the doors, whose locks that were filled with superglue, wood glue and wood, required staff from all three campuses.
People that surrounded the entire block of the school Friday held signs in protest and grew angrier as the police presence grew, said Br. Bob, who walked up and down Fratney Street asking protesters to stay off the school property and to remove signs and blankets they were hanging on the school’s fences. Two protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct, according to Capt. Steve Basting of the Milwaukee Police Department. Jeffrey Robb, the school’s development director, said no one has been arrested for the vandalism, as of press time, though security tapes from Messmer show one person involved in the vandalism.
“As we had told people from the beginning, the governor is here to read to second and third graders and he has a right to do that, and you talk about how important education is for all kids and that all kids deserve this and yet you come out here and you disrupt a school?” Br. Bob said. “And I said, ‘How are they going to get those minutes back that you just stole from them?’”
Br. Bob said the most tragic part of Friday was that kids in classrooms facing Fratney Street could hear the drums, horns, yelling and screaming from protesters. He instructed teachers to tell the kids to stay calm and not worry.
“There was a group going to lunch and a little second grader said, ‘Br. Bob, what are all those crazy people doing at our school?’ And I kind of smiled and said, ‘You know, I was wondering the same thing myself,’” Br. Bob laughed, though an elderly man had threatened to beat him up and “mess up” his “nice” suit.
“It was a certain segment of Milwaukee at its worst,” he said. “There were people telling me that they didn’t want to see me in the neighborhood again, and I said to them, ‘I didn’t ask you when I came here, and I’m not asking you for permission to come back. This neighborhood doesn’t belong to you.”
The school assured parents who called concerned about the students’ safety, after watching TV news coverage of the prep school, that a large contingent of law enforcement was present, Br. Bob said.
“Literally, every branch of law enforcement in the state was here and, not to mention the calls from people who had heard about it wanting to know if we needed any help,” Br. Bob said. “We had private security companies calling, offering assistance, and that’s the good side of our society – that people see insanity and they know what it leads to if left to its own devices.”
Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said she received an email message from the school explaining the situation, and that the archdiocese also supports the school.
“Our schools are locally governed and our position would be one of support for Br. Bob Smith and his team of administrative leaders there.”
In Br. Bob’s 26 years of working at Messmer, he’s never questioned inviting or allowing people like Mayor Tom Barrett, former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, and current Gov. Scott Walker to visit the school, and he’s not going to start because “it shouldn’t matter.”
Protesters crossed the line for Br. Bob when he had to wait to head to the high school for dismissal, because a staff member informed him that police asked him to wait: People waiting outside the parking lot were planning to “smash” Br. Bob’s car as he left and “drag” him out of it.
“I said to people that I spoke with then and I said earlier today that I’ve lived in Detroit, I’ve lived in Chicago, Atlanta, here, and I don’t run from bullies and thugs or threats,” said Br. Bob, who hopes someone will turn in the person or people responsible for thevandalism so that he, she or they can pay to replace the school’s key and fob systems that were destroyed. “And you’re going to have to go through me to get to the kids and the faculty and staff, and you better bet that if you cross that line, we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
As noisy as protesters were outside, students inside were elated to meet Gov. Walker, who read “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and put on Dr. Seuss and Messmer Prep hats, said Br. Bob. According to him, meeting the governor was “a powerful moment for many.”
“They (kids) know who is safe and who they can trust, and you could just see it in their eyes – they were happy he was there,” Br. Bob said. “They love visitors, and they love to show people how much they learn.”
As police investigate the vandalism, Br. Bob said he will continue to watch out for everyone at the schools.
“I will take necessary precautions to keep an eye out for things that look out of the ordinary, but at the end of the day my focus is on the 1,700 kids that we educate at our three campuses, and the couple hundred faculty and staff that are here with us,” he said. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”