A Decade Of Bullying
Karis Anne Ross was an expert in art and architecture. She balanced living in the moment with a desire to study and grow through life.
Karis was a lead special education teacher at The Milwaukee German Immersion School where she worked with three other teacher aides and countless students over her decade career there.
Karis was also a transgender woman.
She was all these things, and so many more, before ending her own life over Thanksgiving weekend last year. In her suicide note, she cited harassment from her three in-class aides, and subsequent inaction from her supervisors, as majors factors in her decision.
When Karis began her work at The German Immersion School, she appeared as a male to her colleagues and students. While still coming to work each day, she began her transition toward her authentic female self. While Karis would feel more “herself” as her features became more feminine, to onlookers, she would only appear increasingly foreign. Even before transitioning, Karis had been subject to harassment by her coworkers for her gender identity, and it certainly did not abate as her transition moved forward.
“Before her transition she was being bullied. After her transition she was being bullied,” Karis’ mother told CBS 58.
For ten years, Karis would stomach the negativity toward her.
“She stayed at the school where she transitioned, so that no matter how well she presented herself as a woman, people knew she was trans. And I think this may be the most heartbreaking thing of the whole story—she opened herself to criticism, and she got it. But she didn’t have to. She did it for the greater good, to promote understanding and acceptance,” Madeline Dietrich, a close friend of Karis’ said.
But eventually her strength would break. Karis had tried countless times to file complaints about the harassment from her aides with the building principal, Dr. Albert J. Brugger, but she got the administrative version of a cold shoulder. As emails between Karis and school administration intensified and multiplied in the weeks leading up to her suicide, nobody seemed to take an interest.
Facing the prospect of returning to her workplace, surrounded by outright hostility from her coworkers and the apparent indifference from her supervisors, Karis ended her own life over Thanksgiving Break in 2014.
In the days after her death, no announcement was made to the staff of The German Immersion School. No attempts were made to contact the family to offer condolences until weeks after the event. To the school administration, Karis remained as invisible in death as she had been in life.
Now A Lifetime Of Spreading Awareness
Madeline Dietrich is a music performer and educator who experienced a close friendship with Karis before her death. Not satisfied with the public school system’s silence on the issue of bullying, Dietrich is now a passionate advocate for change.
After taking a few month to process Karis’ death, she has posted an open letter to the district Superintendent on her website. In it, she calls for accountability and reform from the Milwaukee Public School System in regards to bullying:
“Dr. Driver, I wish you the best in your future as the leader of a major metropolitan school district. It is my hope that you will move forward with a renewed awareness of the grave responsibilities held by public schools in our society, not only in teaching our students, but in setting an example for our population through modeling tolerance for individual diversity and empathy for the plight of our neighbors. As Ms. Ross so eloquently put it in closing her suicide letter, ‘Love to everyone, even the rotten apples.'”
Despite the passion behind the movement to remember Karis and prevent more deaths like hers, they offer no hate, and very few accusations of blame.
“I don’t blame MPS for my daughter’s death. I believe the sad thing is that important things were missed,” Karis’ mother said.
Dietrich agrees, but believes that the death could have been prevented if the incidents were handled properly saying, “while, the blame for her death cannot be fully placed on the Milwaukee Public School District, it is my opinion that if key personnel had responded appropriately, she may have chosen to continue living.”
In that way, Karis’ movement is a departure from others that have got caught up in finger-pointing, rather than finding avenues in which to pursue lasting change. Dietrich believes that their reaction is inspired by the kind of life that Karis lived:
“She was never vindictive about anything. She was always forgiving, always giving the benefit of a doubt. I think our stance reflects the way Karis would have wanted it handled.”
Dietrich says that she hopes her open letter results in an acknowledgment that the incident occurred, that bullying happened, and that changes must be made. Karis’ mother offers similar thoughts:
“The goal is for this to never happen to anybody again. So that things are taken seriously for all human beings,”
According to The Trevor Project, nearly one half of transgendered persons have seriously considered taking their own life, and 25% have made a suicide attempt. Every incident of harassment or abuse increases the likelihood of self harm by two-and-a-half times. Every individual incident of harassment.
Dietrich has not yet heard back from Milwaukee Public Schools. When local media has attempted to reach out to MPS about Karis’ story, including the bullying and the administration’s failure to intervene, the district replied only with a short statement saying that they miss Karis. Many people have offered support to the letter, and stories featuring it have appeared in the Daily Mail and RawStory.
Last weekend, friends and family came together to celebrate Karis’ life. Some of the attendees included teachers from the school who loved Karis and miss her dearly. They are upset that all teachers in the school have been pegged as bullies, when truly, only a portion are to blame.
And that is what make these issues especially hard to address. We want to angrily find a single person, or a single group of people, label them responsible, and make them pariahs. We want the blame to be pointed, we want it to be decisive, and we want it to be simple.
But it isn’t. Not in this case, nor in many others. But there are things we know that have to change. Schools must not be bystanders, and they must look out for students and faculty alike.
We must promote tolerance, so nobody thinks their future is so bleak that it isn’t worth experiencing.
We must create enduring change that lasts longer than one headline, or trending hashtag. We must try to understand other people, even when we are afraid or confused. We must accept people as they come, and trust that people will do the same for us, even if we are left disappointed from time to time.
“One thing I think many people can’t or don’t understand about transgender people—we just want to live our lives,” Dietrich says, “We don’t want to be constantly called out for not fitting gender norms. But people call us out anyway, [which is why] so many of us deliberately try to hide that we’re transgender so people won’t know. It’s just easier if people don’t know.”
But Karis didn’t want to hide, she wanted to give the world the opportunity to see her as she saw herself. She wanted people to know her.
“She went to such great lengths changing the appearance of her body and form, cultivating not just femininity, but poise, distinction, and glamor. And she knocked it out of the park.”