Family says school ignored transgender teacher's cries for help before suicide
FOX6 - MILWAUKEE — It was called "a tragic suicide of one of Milwaukee's brightest teachers." The FOX6 Investigators have obtained the emails the teacher sent to school leaders asking for help.
Karis Ross was a transgender special education teacher at the Milwaukee German Immersion School. According to her suicide note, she killed herself after years of being bullied by co-workers.
Just days before her death she wrote to the school principal, "I feel that I am being subtly bullied and it's taking a toll on my health."
Instead of directly responding to the faculty member, the principal sent the email to other leaders within the administration, seeking "advice in [sic] how to best address this matter."
For a year, MPS refused to release the emails, saying the 2014 suicide was still under investigation. MPS would not comment on the outcome of that investigation, but it did finally release the emails, which show what school leaders knew about her struggle as a transgender special education teacher.
FOX6 shared those emails with her family.
"All of it was very difficult to read," said Ross' mother, Jill Greinke. "I only read them once because I couldn't take reading them more than that. Things that were, you know, just blatantly obvious and were ignored."
The emails document that three years after Ross transitioned from male to female, the school principal continued to refer to her as a man. Ross wrote, "I know you meant no offense by such a slip-up. Old habits die hard. However, people look to you as a model of behavior."
That same year, she wrote to the principal about what she called "ongoing drama" in the special education classroom, rumors about her being spread by other teachers, and continued problems with classroom aides.
"Reading them was very hard because it is everything Karis talked about," Greinke said.
And then, the month she died, she sent numerous emails complaining about "multiple panic attacks, extreme fatigue, and a complete loss of appetite." Ross asked to meet with the principal to discuss "practical solutions to some of the difficulties" she was having with classroom aides.
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When he never replied, she wrote again, saying "I don't feel I have your support in this matter."
"She tried to get the principal to mediate, which in my opinion would have been his job," Greinke said.
Just days before she killed herself, she wrote to the school principal, "I feel that I am being subtly bullied by all CHAs and by the lack of support from administration and it's taking a toll on my health."
She never heard back. Instead, the principal forwarded her email to labor relations, but by then it was too late.
In her suicide note she wrote, "I endured 10 years of bullying from several of my co-workers. After a lifetime of abuse from other people, I simply couldn't stand another day of it."
"The kind of bullying that went on with my daughter was subtle," Greinke said. "It wasn't that she was kicked or hit or pushed. She was ignored."
That kind of emotional abuse, Greinke said, can take a toll.
In the days following Ross' suicide, the school principal emailed with other district administrators about possibly disciplining the teacher for failing to show up to class without notice.
"She wasn't in school for two days before we found her," Greinke said. "So that was hard to see."
MPS would not talk to FOX6 on camera about how it dealt with this situation. The German Immersion Foundation wrote an email to FOX6 saying "The GIF is not involved in the daily operations of the Milwaukee German Immersion School, and its members have no knowledge of personnel matters related to the school. Thus, we have no comment."
It's that kind of radio silence on the issue, Greinke says, that is part of the problem.
"There has to be change," she said. "Bullying is not always physical. My daughter felt she wasn't being heard because she was different and she was transgender."
Madeline Dietrich, one of Karis' friends, wrote an open letter to MPS after Karis' death, which garnered national attention.
After we showed her the emails, she said she stands by what she wrote.
"MPS failed to acknowledge the obstacles Karis faces as a woman, as a trans person," Dietrich said, "This is really the takeaway I guess for other school districts -- is how serious this is and how seriously they need to take it."
Dr. Cary Costello, a sociology professor at UW-Milwaukee, says it's important that employers, especially school districts, be aware of what their employees are up against when they transition at work.
"We have to be aware of the levels of discrimination and harassment, that especially trans women face in this society -- and be good allies for them," he said.
Denise Callaway, executive director of communications & outreach for Milwaukee Public Schools sent FOX6 the following statement:
"Ms. Ross was a well-respected member of the Milwaukee German Immersion School family for many years. The absence of her presence is still felt today.
As the emails you received show, it was not evident until Ms. Ross' November 26, 2014 email that she felt she was being bullied. That email was sent the afternoon before the two-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The principal responded immediately when he saw the email, reaching out during the holiday weekend to seek support for Ms. Ross and scheduling an appointment to talk to her."
But the emails FOX6 obtained show that the principal did not respond immediately to Ross. She emailed on Nov. 26, 2014, saying she felt she was being subtly bullied. On Nov. 28, 2014, the principal emailed another administrator asking for advice on how to best address the issue. There are no emails from the principal to Ross after that date.
MPS' Administrative Policy includes equal protection for staff regardless of gender.
"This policy was originally housed in the section of our policies related to students, even though it applied to students and staff. In 2015, we moved it to the section of policies that specifically applies to staff," Callaway said.
It's unclear whether the co-workers Ross mentioned in her suicide note were ever disciplined. MPS would not provide specific details of its investigation.