Thursday, June 28, 2018

When School Isn’t Safe: Guest Post

I am sharing the following message this morning, with permission, to boost the signal for an important issue in our community.

It is a mistake to think that we can assure “school safety” by adding a police presence and other policies and procedures aimed at preventing outsiders from coming in to the school to do harm. Here we see, yet again, how the harm comes from within.

What will we do in Howard County to address the rising incidence of intolerance and harassment based on race, religion, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation? Young people mirror what they see at home and what they see in our present-day culture. How do we build strong school communities so that our students feel secure in the expectation that all are worthy of acceptance?

A message from the Jewish Federation of Howard County:

This is the first in what will be a series of periodic updates from me, as the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s newly-appointed Executive Director as of July 1. I am very happy that our Board of Directors has asked me to remain in a permanent capacity and look forward to working alongside our dedicated Board members, donors, clergy, and volunteers to build and strengthen Jewish life in the county.

Recently, the Federation has conducted a series of meetings and interventions with the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), in close partnership with the Howard County Board of Rabbis (BOR) and the Federation’s newly-established Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). We met in response to several troubling anti-Semitic incidents in a county middle school, where a 13-year-old Jewish student was repeatedly taunted for being a Jew. Several classmates drew swastikas on her property and school property, and the student received physical and verbal threats – one stating that “Jews should be killed.”

While two of the student perpetrators were disciplined for their verbal abuses and hateful social media posts, those who drew swastikas were never clearly identified nor punished. The Jewish student became fearful of going to school, and though her parents forcefully advocated for her with senior HCPSS administrators and faculty, they decided to remove their child from the HCPSS as she could not tolerate the continuing harassment.

This is a shocking and disturbing outcome. The HCPSS ultimately failed the family – and most importantly, the child – in failing to create a safe learning environment for their daughter. The administrators and faculty failed to adequately follow established procedures with respect to bullying, and they simply mishandled the situation – even while previous cases of bullying and intimidation in the same middle school had resulted in harsh responses by the principal, as well as messages to the entire student body and parents of those children. None of that occurred with respect to this Jewish student.

When the family first informed me and several local rabbis about the situation, in coordination with the JCRC in Washington, DC, we arranged for an eloquent Howard County Holocaust survivor to speak to the 7th and 8th graders at the middle school, which made a powerful impact on the students.

Then, in coordination with the Howard County BOR and JCRC, and immediately following the Glenelg High School graffiti incident, we met the senior HCPSS administrator responsible for diversity and inclusion issues who oversees the school system’s response to incidents like this. We urged the HCPSS to adopt the ADL’s anti-bias curriculum for K – 12 and to consult with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has developed outstanding curricula about hatred, intolerance, and anti-Semitism. We also asked that representatives of Howard County’s Jewish institutions be appointed to HCPSS’s curriculum review committee.

We urged the administrator to revive a moribund equity committee to recommend a consistent policy that protects all minorities from undue pressure and stigmatization. We also urged him to take steps so that teachers show greater respect for diversity in their music, arts, and other departments. (This was in response to another recent incident at a HoCo high school where a Jewish student was compelled to sing Christian- and Jesus-centric songs at an end-of-year choir concert, which made her very uncomfortable.)

Further, we urged the administrator to form a committee to review acts of intolerance, make recommendations to protect victims of bigotry and intolerance, and address how best to deal with and re-educate perpetrators of hateful acts. Finally, we urged the HCPSS to seek additional input from different ethnic, racial, and religious minority groups.

Then, earlier this week, we and the parents who withdrew their child from the system met with the senior HCPSS administrator, the Area Superintendent overseeing the middle school in question, and the HCPSS’s director of community, parent, and school outreach. We wanted to extract a commitment from them to ensure that no child – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white, black, Asian, gay, or straight – would ever endure what this student had endured this year.

We achieved our objectives. The administrators committed themselves to review current policies and procedures. They also agreed to train administrators and teachers about proper responses to bullying and anti-Semitic incidents and provide all possible support to a student who is victimized. They acknowledged that there can be no let-up in disciplining perpetrators of these hate incidents.

I can assure you: we will hold the HCPSS’s feet to the fire as we move forward.

I want to publicly acknowledge and thank Rabbi Susan Grossman of Congregation Beth Shalom, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman representing the BOR, and Betsy Singer, who chairs our JCRC, who worked in close partnership with me as we addressed these issues.

- -  Interim Executive Director Ralph Grunewald

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