Responses from Schools to Anti-Semitic Incidents on Campus Vary Greatly

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March 14, 2016; Washington Post, The Record (Bergen County, NJ), and Boston Globe

Students at the all-boys Catholic Memorial High School in Boston have been barred by school officials from a playoff game after voicing anti-Semitic sentiments during a game against neighboring Newton North High School. According to reports, Catholic Memorial students chanted, “You killed Jesus,” a reference to Newton’s high Jewish population. The incident marks one of many recent anti-Semitic gestures on school campuses in the past several months, raising concerns about how best to broach the topic of hate speech and bias at schools.

Following the incident, Catholic Memorial officials have not only barred their students from attending the game (although their players will be able to participate), they have also required each student in attendance at the game to personally apologize to Newton North’s interim principal and shake his hand. According to parents of the Catholic Memorial students, the anti-Semitic chants were said in response to homophobic remarks the Newton crowd allegedly levied against their opponents.

Newton school district superintendent David Fleishman said Newton has its own issues to iron out with its students’ behavior at the game. Namely, Newton has had some concerning incidents within its own community, where anti-Semitic graffiti has been found in multiple schools.

These incidents are neither unique nor singular; however, these Boston schools’ collaborative response stands in sharp contrast to how other incidents at other schools have unfolded. In January, Sara Rosen, a Rutgers University student, walked into her apartment to find a blue swastika taped to the ceiling of her apartment. According to Rosen’s Facebook post, her two male roommates admitted to taping the symbol, but insisted it was a reference to a similar Buddhist symbol, an explanation the student dismissed.

According to Rutgers officials, “Following an extensive investigation, which included several interviews with the complainant, witnesses and the suspect, the matter was handled by the Office of Student Conduct and adjudicated.” The matter was also referred to the county prosecutor’s office, which did not find cause to charge the roommate with a hate crime. One of the roommates remains in campus housing, which Rosen says should change. “When we see a swastika, we see a powerful symbol of hate, intimidation and a crude attack. No student should be exposed to this type of behavior, especially in on-campus housing,” said Rosen.

The Anti-Defamation League also called on the university to make a “strong public statement condemning this incident.” Perhaps due to their findings, the university hasn’t publically condemned the incident.

Conversely, upon calls for Vassar College to condemn an anti-Semitic guest speaker in February, the president, Catharine Hill, instead invited parents and alumni to an open discussion on the issue online.

“These kinds of events make us hopeful for even more productive and respectful exchanges,” wrote Hill. “This is not to say that we do not face difficult issues, we absolutely do. And, this includes incidents of anti-Semitism. Such incidents are in violation of our college regulations and policies and we do not tolerate them. We denounce them.”

She went on to say she supports the faculty’s decision to bring the speakers they choose to campus, whether or not their message is contradictory to the university’s values. Rather, what’s important in Vassar’s note is that they opened the discussion up to their community and welcomed their feedback, all the while denouncing the speaker’s views, not her freedom to speak them.

Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a town hall meeting after images of swastikas and Hitler were posted on a Jewish student’s door. School administrators held a meeting to answer students’ questions, including about disciplinary actions taken against the perpetrators, as well as to discuss larger solutions to the issue of hate speech and bias incidents on campus.

While each of these incidents is different, it would appear one of the best ways to combat such actions is for a school to take a proactive role in addressing students’ concerns. Acknowledging that there may be a problem is the first step, as seen in the Newton North story. These discussions not only educate other students who may not understand the seriousness and impact of a hate crime, but it will draw public attention and explain why such actions won’t be tolerated in a school environment.

Schools must provide safe environments which facilitate learning and understanding among students from diverse backgrounds,” said Joshua Cohen, the regional director of the ADL New Jersey.—Shafaq Hasan