For Parker High School senior Martha Medrano-Ramos, graduation is an accomplishment made sweeter by adversity.
After moving to Janesville from Honduras in eighth grade, Martha had to learn a new language and culture while also fighting cancer.
And while graduation looks different than she imagined thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, Martha couldn’t hide her joy Wednesday.
“I’m just super happy,” she said as she laughed with her younger sisters in her family home as their cat, Ruby, waited for pats.
In 2015, then-13-year-old Martha moved to the United States with her younger sister Heidi to join her father, Santos, and stepmother, Wendy. Santos had moved to Janesville in 2005 and married Wendy in 2009.
Wendy petitioned the government in 2014 to have Martha and Heidi come to the U.S. from Honduras, where they had been living with their grandparents. The girls’ grandfather had died, and their grandmother was getting older and less able to support them.
Martha and Heidi arrived in Janesville in September 2015, and Martha began eighth grade in the Janesville School District.
Martha had to learn English from scratch, but she grew more comfortable with it as the year went on.
Then came high school. Being a freshman in a new school and new country intimidated Martha, but that was nothing compared to what she had to face next.
In January of her sophomore year, Martha began feeling tired all the time. After a few tests, doctors told her she had leukemia.
“I was just really scared because I didn’t want to lose my hair,” Martha said.
She didn’t understand what the diagnosis meant, and she had never heard of cancer before doctors told her she had it.
“It was sad because it was a lot to take in,” she said. “I was in a lot of pain a lot of the time, and it was just too much. At the end, I felt like I knew more about cancer, but it was sad.”
Julie Grandeffo teaches English to students who are not native English speakers. She taught Martha all four years of high school and remembers that teachers were just as surprised by the diagnosis.
“I remember it very clearly,” Grandeffo said. “She had talked with an aide about not feeling well, and the very next day we found out. It was such a shock because it went from ‘Oh my gosh, she’s not feeling well’ to ‘She has leukemia.’ We all cried.”
Wendy, Martha’s stepmother, said it was especially difficult because Martha had only been in Janesville for a little more than a year.
“It was a long haul,” she said. “There were a few times we thought she wasn’t going to make it through because of complications.”
Martha missed the entire second semester of school as she fought cancer. She continued to do her schoolwork from home and in hospital beds between treatments. While there were challenges, Martha completed her last treatment in April 2019.
“At the time, Martha had only been here for a year and a half, so we didn’t quite have that big mother/daughter bond yet,” Wendy said. “It was hard for me to be there for her, be there for the rest of the kids, and know that when I couldn’t be there that she was alone. But I knew she had it in her. She’s strong-willed, and we made it.”
Martha said Grandeffo was a big help, both in helping her learn English and with completing schoolwork during and after her treatment.
Grandeffo said it was inspiring to see Martha work so hard despite her diagnosis.
“She wanted to really do her best,” Grandeffo said. “I had her all four years, and so it was really neat to see the progression of this shy ninth-grader who is now very outgoing, strong and passionate.
“I am just so proud of her. To see everything she has overcome and the grace and poise that she faced every challenge with, she’s just a remarkable, strong young woman,” she said. “I don’t think that’s something she would say about herself, but it’s what others would say about her.”
Martha said she is ready for life after high school. She plans to apply for American citizenship and then attend Blackhawk Technical College in hopes of becoming a police officer.
“I just want to help people,” she said.
Seeing Martha graduate is an emotional moment for her family.
“It’s amazing,” Wendy said. “She has come so far since she stepped foot in the United States. She’s learned English, she’s battled cancer and now she’s made it through high school. These are all huge accomplishments for anybody, let alone somebody who isn’t accustomed to the American culture. We’re just so proud.”
If you asked Saree Behm and her family what separates the Craig High School senior from other high school students, they would likely say her upbeat personality, ability to persevere and occasional sassy nature.
Being legally blind likely wouldn’t make the list.
In fact, some of her peers and teachers were completely unaware of her visual impairment, partly because Behm never let it slow her down.
She graduated with the rest of Craig’s Class of 2020 this week.
“It means I conquered something. I stuck it out for 13 years. I got a really good education, and I’m going to college. I think I did pretty good,” she said of graduating high school. She was also a member of the track and field, gymnastics, and swim teams.
Behm’s vision is around 20/2,400, which means she sees from 20 feet away what a person with perfect vision can see at 2,400 feet. She was born with congenital cataracts, or clouds in the lenses of her eyes that can cause blindness.
“My vision is horrible,” she said with a wide smile Friday.
“I’m pretty sure if you were to put yourself in my shoes, you’d be like ‘Holy mackerel, that’s all you can see?’”
Roger and Teresa Behm adopted Saree from China in 2007 when she was 6½ years old and the parents were both 53. Congenital cataracts can be corrected, but because of the poor health care system and one-child rule in China, Saree’s condition went untreated.
Roger Behm is blind himself, and he and Teresa learned about the possibility of adopting a child from China from a family friend who is also blind. Their family of six, which includes four adult children who are now between 31 and 40 years old, became a family of seven.
“We didn’t see nothing wrong with her, but the write-up made her look all messed up. But she wasn’t,” Roger said.
Saree knew almost no English when the Behms dropped her off for her first day of first grade, and most people thought they were her grandparents because of their age.
Saree’s vision means she misses out on visual cues, struggles to recognize faces and can’t see smiles or waves from across a room. When she was younger, she wouldn’t recognize her mom when she would pick her up from school.
Still, Saree doesn’t use a walking cane because she navigates the world well without one. She said she hasn’t fallen down but that it sometimes can be difficult to maneuver around when floors are different shades of gray.
Schoolwork often took her much longer than her classmates, she and her family said. Technology has helped tremendously, Saree said, because she can zoom in on a computer or phone screen to see notes more clearly. Photocopies can be difficult to work with, but she said the school district was very accommodating.
Command keys on computers are a big help, too, and Saree said she likely knows more of these keys than the average student.
“Because of her visual impairment, homework takes a lot more time,” Teresa said.
“You have to blow everything up, and when you magnify it, everything doesn’t fit on the screen. So then you’re moving everything or jumping back and forth between a piece of paper and computer,” she said.
Visual teacher Melanie Baumunk was a big help during Saree’s four years of high school, both with her education and with teaching Saree how to advocate for herself, the Behms said.
Baumunk said she enjoyed watching Saree grow as a student and as a person, and she said they will stay in each other’s lives now that Saree has graduated.
“She is one of the hardest working kids because she likes school. Visually speaking, school was not a natural fit because she couldn’t just walk in and access education like other kids, but she kept at it and she excelled,” Baumunk said.
While her visual impairment can cause frustration, she hopes people around her recognize her for other reasons.
“I don’t want that to be the first thing that people know or think about me. I’m not going to hide and keep it a secret, but I’m not going to make sure everyone knows,” she said.
To Saree, her father exemplifies that. He’s not blind; he’s Dad—though Roger joked that Saree learned early on that her father might not be the best help in some situations.
“She learned at a young age not to ask her dad if he liked her outfit or if the Christmas present in her hands was hers,” Roger said with a laugh.
Saree hopes to help others in the future. She plans to attend UW-Whitewater starting this summer to study early childhood education. She hopes to someday work as a special education teacher for small children.
“She’s like a magnet for kids,” Teresa Behm said. “The kids just flock to her all the time. Her nieces and nephews, they just love Aunt Ree.”
She also gained real-world experience working with a 4K classroom in the Janesville School District, she said.
Like any other college freshman, Saree said she is a little nervous about tough professors, time management and making new friends.
But Roger said the family has full faith in her because she has proven she is just as capable as any other person.
“We just always told her, ‘You’ve got the future in front of you. Anything you want to do, you can do it. You couldn’t do it in China, but you can do it here,’ and we pushed her to challenge herself just like all of our other kids,” he said.
“She’s been such a blessing.”
Activists and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum are calling for an end to qualified immunity, a practice they say largely protects police from accountability when officers are sued for unconstitutional acts.
Meanwhile, a federal appeals court is reviewing whether a Walworth County sheriff’s deputy fits under the qualified immunity doctrine after he fired into a vehicle during a botched East Troy drug bust in February 2016, killing the car’s passenger.
Then-deputy Juan Ortiz shot and killed Christopher J. Davis, who died two weeks before his 22nd birthday as he sat in the passenger seat next to the driver, Jose G. Lara, who eventually pleaded guilty to two drug and fleeing charges.
Ortiz later became a detective at the sheriff’s office. Dan Necci, the district attorney at the time of the shooting, ruled the shooting justified.
Doretha Lock-Davis, Christopher Davis’ mother, sued Ortiz and other law enforcement officials and jurisdictions over “deliberate indifference and negligence” leading to her son’s death, also alleging some officers destroyed squad-car camera video recordings.
But the attorney representing Ortiz is asking the U.S. 7th District Court of Appeals in Chicago to overrule a lower court’s decision and decide that Ortiz is covered under qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a Supreme Court doctrine that shields officers from liability—even if rights are violated—unless there is “clearly established” law from a prior case with the same circumstances.
Proponents of the doctrine say it protects officers who have to make quick decisions.
Justin Amash, a conservative congressman from Michigan, tweeted June 3 that he and Ayanna Pressley, a House Democrat from Massachusetts, were introducing a bill to end qualified immunity.
Amash and Pressley in a letter said qualified immunity “sharply narrowed” when police can be held legally accountable, “even for truly heinous rights violations.”
Congress allowed people to sue state and local officials who violated rights as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, according to the letter. But in 1967, the Supreme Court “began gutting” the law when it created the qualified immunity doctrine.
“The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police is merely the latest in a long line of incidents of egregious police misconduct,” the letter states. “This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve.”
Samuel Hall, an attorney representing Ortiz, is asking the appeals court to reverse the lower court’s decision because, “It was not clearly established in February 2016 that deputy Ortiz seized Davis under the Fourth Amendment,” when he shot into the vehicle and “unintentionally” struck Davis, the appeal states.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The appeal argues the lower court’s decision did not adequately spell out the Fourth Amendment right at issue.
Legal precedent allows officers to use deadly force when they “reasonably” believe they are under threat by weapons—in this case a vehicle, the appeal states.
Ortiz’s side also brings up that a purpose of qualified immunity is to allow for “reasonable errors” so officers are not always afraid of being sued, according to the appeal.
His side also argues neither the Supreme Court nor this appellate court have addressed the specific situation for when an officer fires to stop a moving vehicle and accidentally hits a passenger.
Nate Cade, the attorney representing Lock-Davis, argued in his response to the appeal that Ortiz “seized” Davis under the Fourth Amendment as soon as he shot him.
Jose Lara drove in the seat next to where Christopher Davis died. But members of the Davis family, in a moment of “beauty and humanity,” forgave Lara and prayed with him and his family before he went to prison.
He wrote that Ortiz “bends the facts to shape his argument,” and that means the court should deny his case for qualified immunity.
The response argues Ortiz made incorrect statements about when the car accelerated and the direction it was going.
Ortiz also was on notice, the response argues, that firing into a moving vehicle when deadly force was not appropriate or necessary was not lawful.
Cade wrote that as the lower court noted, it was possible Ortiz was responsible for the danger he found himself in because he moved toward the vehicle’s intended path out of the parking lot.
“Ortiz also cannot rely on qualified immunity because he created the danger that led to him shooting into the vehicle purportedly to save his life,” the response states.
Also at issue is whether the appeals court has jurisdiction to rule on this matter.
Cade said in an email that a decision on this matter won’t come for months. After the final brief came from Ortiz’s side June 1, he said in six to eight weeks they could hold oral arguments in Chicago and three to six months likely would pass after that for a decision.
That depends, in part, on the judge who will write the opinion, he added. And a decision could come faster if the court rules that it doesn’t have jurisdiction on this case, which Cade said was “rare.”