Rarely does a governor intervene in a local school district issue, especially one that is already in litigation. But this weekend, Andrew Cuomo did just that. He has directed the State Police and the Division of Human rights to investigate ongoing charges of anti-Semitic activity in a school district just over an hour outside New York City. The November 7th article published in the NY Times caused us to wonder if the date was really 2013 or if we were reading a historical article reprinted. But, here we were. It was nearly the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht and we were reading, still, about hate. The article reported,
The New York Times has reviewed about 3,500 pages of deposition testimony by parents, children and school administrators, which were provided by the families’ lawyers on the condition that the identities of the children, some of whom are still enrolled, be protected.
The article explains that there are three families suing the Pine Bush School District for not dealing with overt acts of anti-Semitism.
... a review of sworn depositions of current and former school officials shows that some have acknowledged there had been a problem, although they denied it was widespread and said they had responded appropriately with discipline and other measures.
Hate does not have to be widespread to be a problem. Just one act is one too many. A rally was held to represent those in the community who think the district and community are diverse and welcoming. The concern was over how the community was represented. Sadly, it was not concern over the hateful acts, no matter how few.
Jewish students reported swastikas drawn on school property and in classrooms, the Nazi salute performed on the school bus, horrific Holocaust insults (we cannot call them jokes), and coins thrown at Jewish students. One girl reported being held down while other students drew a swastika on her check. These are allegedly the acts of children perpetrated on others.
Administrators acknowledged hateful speech and actions have taken place. The (now retired) Superintendent was quoted as emailing one of the parents, “I have said I will meet with your daughters and I will, but your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.” In addition, the former Superintendent is reported to have suggested that the complaints are “embellished” and that it was a “money grab” on the part of the complaining parents. An irony is this Superintendent, himself Jewish, reported in his deposition that,
...when he was being considered for the post, members of the Pine Bush school board cautioned him about the community’s history of anti-Semitism and Klan activity, and that it “was not a Jewish area.” He said his hiring was an example of how far the district had come.
As background, the grand marshal of the KKK lived in this district back in the 1970’s and his wife had been on the school board. All those who have experienced exclusion mark progress one by one into power, society and acceptance. But, the acceptance of one or a few does not mean hate has ended. There is no number that tips the scale.
Hate toward any group has to become intolerable in this nation. One act of hate must be extinguished, not by a detention or suspension, but by an extraordinary act of bravery and a changing of mind and behavior.
What could suspending a child for telling a horrible “joke” about the Holocaust do to change a belief system held by the child and his or her family? Does the simple act of having students listen to a Holocaust survivor without planned, specific, follow-up and teaching create empathy? The former Superintendent said, “We don’t teach them hate in school, but yet we have to undo the hate and the intolerance.” Yes, that is it exactly! And how can we do that with adults determining how many victims are required to qualify a matter as than a discipline issue? And how can we change our schools when a lawyer, representing the school is quoted as “accusing the plaintiffs of distorting the facts... ‘I mean, the way they describe it, it sounds like it’s the Third Reich in those schools,’ she said.”
Perhaps we need to look at this in a different way. Rather than trying to teach an anti-Semitic community to accept their Jewish neighbors, or a hetero-sexual community to accept their gay neighbors, or a white community to accept their black neighbors, what if we simply worked on the question of hate. Maybe the focus on bullying or acts of violence against a minority is one step too removed. Maybe focusing on accepting those who are gay, or black, or Jewish is one step removed. Maybe we need to ask ourselves, why do we hate? If even those who lead schools, or represent us in government, or are our lawyers and our clergy, can diminish or dismiss the horror that is bias, perhaps we haven’t come as far as we thought. Hate dies hard and slowly. The actions of children and adults can be driven by it. So, if hate endures and children achieve well on tests, have we gained a better country? We think not. This work of humanity is also our work. We hope that the children who were allegedly subjected to the anti-Semitism present in this school and community do no themselves become hate filled as a result. Fundamentally, let us learn to be part of the human community, together.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.