Editor’s note: The AJT failed to get Fulton County Schools‘ comments on parents’ complaints before publishing this article. We have added responses from spokeswoman Susan Hale.
While sitting in class waiting for the bell to ring this past school year, a junior at North Springs Charter High School was scrolling through Snapchat when she discovered an image of Hitler with “My love 4 you burns like 6,000,000 Jews” written in red letters.
The Jewish student scrolled down and noticed a laughing emoji placed under the image by a classmate.
“I saw the picture and thought, ‘This is disgusting,’ ” said the student, who captured a screen shot of the image and reported it to the principal.
Later that day, she confronted the classmate. “I was very upset and asked how they could think the slur was funny as it was, in fact, very disrespectful,” the student said.
The response she said she received: “I don’t know. I thought it was amusing. Everyone had them.”
The incident at the Fulton County public high school was an example of a surge in anti-Semitic actions at public and private schools in the Atlanta area the past year, as reported to the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast Region office in Buckhead and discussed in the private Facebook group of the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism.
To understand the problem, the AJT spoke with the ADL, AIAAS, parents, students, a Fulton County Board of Education member and a former school superintendent.
The incidents include swastikas scratched into the walls of bathroom stalls and comments such as “Kill all Jews” and “Gas the Jews,” said Shelley Rose, the ADL’s interim Southeast regional director.
The ADL received notification in 2016 of students imitating the Nazi salute while chanting “Heil, Hitler,” as well as several calls about “Holocaust jokes” referencing the difference between Jews and cake.
“I’ve gotten used to hearing these stories, but it still hits me every time because there’s a real insensitivity about someone’s words and their impact on others,” Rose said.
The North Springs student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, later discovered multiple anti-Semitic stories rotating on Snapchat.
“The fact that we have any form of anti-Semitism at my school is very strange to me because North Springs is very diverse and composed of a majority of blacks and Latinos. However, it may be coming from a small percentage of individuals,” she said.
“I’ve seen a few, but I don’t necessarily see a large number of individuals offering support from the Jewish community. Perhaps if they did so, the problems we are having could be further acknowledged by the school as opposed to just discussing the matter,” the student said. “I want anti-Semitism to become a known subject and wish more Jewish students would stick up for what’s happening.”
North Springs later held an assembly on equality and acceptance, but not all teachers cooperated, the student said. “When the junior girls were called to the assembly, my teacher said we could go, but we had to make up assignments. She made us feel that we made a choice to miss work when it was something I felt passionate about. I felt the assembly could perhaps get through to some students.”
In 2016, Rose said, the ADL received 56 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in the agency’s Southeast Region, which covers Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee; that total more than doubled the 26 incidents recorded in 2015. The region then saw 32 incidents in just the first quarter of 2017, with much of the increase involving schools and Jewish youths.
Incidents at schools began to spike in the 2015-16 school year, producing 14 reported incidents for that year and 2016-17 combined through the end of March. At least seven schools in Cobb and Fulton counties reported incidents.
“We’ve implemented numerous ADL programs in schools and have been set up to address the situation,” Rose said, explaining how the agency works with schools where incidents are reported. “If we don’t get a response, we go to the next level in contacting the school district; however, I would say it’s rare that we don’t. There has only been one instance in which the school refused assistance, noting, ‘It’s just kids being kids,’ and did not wish to explore the situation.”
Although various causes have driven the rise in anti-Semitism, Rose emphasized the 2016 presidential campaign.
“We saw a lot of heated rhetoric tossed during the campaign, which eventually filters down to children, allowing them to say whatever they want,” she said. “This in turn has led to polarization and awareness in our society, which may be why more incidents are now being reported where they may not have in the past.”
Ruth Hartman spoke with the AJT about her daughter’s harassment at an elementary school. While serving as a hall monitor, Brooke Hartman was told she was being bossy and acting “like Hitler” by a group of boys who had just completed a lesson on World War II.
According to Hartman, Brooke reported the incident to the counselor, who followed procedure to collect the boys’ information and witness accounts. The boys were forced to write letters of apology, but then Brooke was asked whether she would change classes midyear.
“She was much happier in her new class, but the victim was punished in this situation,” Hartman said.
“I was shaking and astonished when I heard the news,” said Hartman, who was notified about the incident by the counselor, whom she knew from prior incidents. “I couldn’t believe that kids could be so cruel or this could happen in my own small town of Johns Creek. I’m very sorry my daughter had to experience this at a young age.”
In March, three months after changing classes, Brooke faced further harassment. One of the boys from the same group was dared to pull down her pants on the playground, but she brushed him away as he began tugging on her pants.
The boy was suspended for two days and no longer allowed to speak with the girl.
Hartman learned about the incident from a friend’s text. “The school did not bother to call me about the incident, and when I did ask to speak with the front-desk receptionist, I was told, ‘We were just about to call you.’ It has been a very trying school year,” Hartman said. “Communication has been a real problem, since the school doesn’t allow you to know what happens to the instigator in such situations.”
Hartman said she has tried to address the incidents with the principal at the middle school Brooke will attend next year. “I asked the principal to speak with the boy about preventing future incidents, and she stated, ‘I am not going to speak to him, as I am giving him the same chance I’m giving your daughter at the beginning of the year.’ ”
When Hartman suggested speaking to Brooke as well, the principal said she would consider talking to both students and their families.
“There has been no recourse regarding the situation or the urgency to act against anti-Semitism from North Fulton schools, nor has it been demonstrated by principals,” Hartman said. “At the end of the day, assemblies and programs are not enough. We need action from administrators and people higher up.”
Hartman said she’s concerned that school administrators are downplaying incidents to avoid looking bad to district leaders, “but this is, in turn, hurting students. Unless we have open dialogues, nothing will change.”
“As a parent, you want your child in a safe and nurturing learning environment free of discriminatory practices or behaviors,” said Emily Lembeck, who retired in December as the Marietta schools superintendent. “When and if issues arise, then they need to be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible in the best interest of the students and the school. One hopes that all issues can be resolved at the local school level in every school district; however, if you’ve gone through your administrator and there’s still no resolution, then you have to find the next person in the chain of command in one’s district and bring it to their attention.”
In addition to speaking with administrators, the ADL works with schools from an educational perspective by encouraging them to adopt the No Place for Hate program, which aims to create a climate of respect in which students and staff understand that comments conveying anti-Semitism or other forms of hate are deemed unacceptable.
The ADL also coordinates “step-up assemblies” that teach students to act instead of remaining bystanders when others are the targets of hate.
At Haynes Bridge Middle School, where a Junior Beta induction ceremony was scheduled for Yom Kippur until complaints led the date to be changed, a parent said her child faced verbal and physical harassment. A student paid by classmates unleashed Holocaust-based slurs and poked the child with an instrument during band class.
[Hale: There was never a report or evidence that a student was paid to state slurs or poke a child.]
The parent contacted the ADL, which offered the school educational assistance, but the parent said the school refused.
[Hale: The ADL did call Haynes Bridge but there was never a refusal of anything. The school had programs already in place that supported anti-bullying and inclusivity as well as cultural awareness and religious sensitivity. The school is willing to coordinate with the ADL if there are services that can address needs outside of what the school currently already has in place.]
“My child never received an apology,” the parent said. “I sat down with the assistant principal and my child for two hours one time, discussing specific bullying and anti-Semitism, as they were supposed to address it. However, they only made excuses and spoke with multiple students instead.”
[Hale: Accusations were made and an administrator shared with the parent the process used to investigate allegations. All students involved received disciplinary consequences as outlined by the Student Code of Conduct. The parent wanted to know the specific consequences each student received, but sharing this without the other students’ parents’ consent is a violation of federal law. As such, the school did not share the specific disciplinary consequences but instead shared broadly that discipline had occurred.]
One student did receive consequences for repeatedly bullying the child, the parent said, but that bully received an end-of-the-year award few classmates got.
“What kind of example does that set for the victims and other students?” the parent said.
[Hale: The award the child received was given to 240 different students throughout the school year. That is 30% of the school’s student population. The school does not exclude students from being eligible for awards. Grade-level teachers nominate students that exemplify certain character traits. Every child is given the opportunity to show that they can be successful.]
“In such instances the school board can also implement policies that would help prevent acts of anti-Semitism unfolding,” said Julia Bernath, who represents a North Fulton district on the Fulton County Board of Education. “It is important to have conversations as a community to help everyone realize the gravity of the situation.
“If there is no one to explain or let others know about a problem or issue, how are we supposed to fix it?”
Bernath said Fulton County trains school counselors, social workers and psychologists to support teachers and students in combating any form of hate. “It’s important to find appropriate avenues within the school, such as assemblies educating students on the dangers of anti-Semitism and how it impacts others.”
She blames social media for the rise in anti-Semitic incidents.
“The ability to download information from the Internet, whether factual or not, has also become another problem in determining truth from fiction,” Bernath said. “Parents may not have the training they need to monitor social media and other forms of communication; however, it’s important to stay engaged in children’s lives both socially and academically.”
“Cooperative strategies such as dialogues between Jewish and non-Jewish students may offer victims and staff an opportunity to address the ongoing issue,” Rose said. “Getting to know others who are different from you is a very important element because it helps break down stereotypes and helps prevent hateful comments, a tactic the ADL emphasizes.”
AIAAS founding partner Danielle Cohen said the organization is targeting anti-Semitism in schools as part of its grassroots efforts across metro Atlanta. The organization’s next major program will be a fall summit of educational officials, from bus drivers to the top levels of the state Education Department.
“AIAAS hopes to be a conduit to advancing the dialogue and action against anti-Semitism in our community, and the grassroots nature of AIAAS could help bridge the gap between legacy agencies and those who have not been engaged,” Cohen said. “Anti-Semitism is a community problem, and to impact real change, we all must work together, proactively and reactively.”