Students and Parents Frustrated by District Response to Swastika

For The Westfield Leader

WESTFIELD — Students and parents spoke during Tuesday’s board of education meeting about their frustration with the school district’s response to the recent anti-Semitic and racial graffiti found in Westfield High School (WHS) bathrooms. There were two separate incidents reported this month. The first was a swastika drawn on a wall in a bathroom on December 1. Two more swastikas were found December 8, which had been carved into a bathroom stall along with a racial slur.

“I take acts of hate as a personal affront to those that I care about,” said Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., during his Superintendent’s Report earlier in the meeting. Dr. González said the district is using both action and words to address these incidents. The district does not share all of the information about safety protocols with the public, Dr. González added, so as not to compromise an ongoing investigation and for student safety. “We are prepared to impose the harshest consequences according to our code of conduct,” he said.

Charlotte Cohen, a WHS student, said, “I am disappointed that the administration felt it was necessary to include that the first swastika this month was drawn in pencil, as the language felt diminishing of the hate crime in comparing it to past carved swastikas.” Miss Cohen said she suggested a mandatory assembly or discussion during school hours, “to educate students about the rise of anti-Semitism in modern society and the hateful symbolism of the swastika.” Miss Cohen said that while the administration supports the idea, the planning of such an event has fallen to the student volunteers, “making it feel like the administration does not care enough to do it themselves.”

Fellow student Joanna Sexton agreed that anti-Semitic and racist acts such as these have not been “properly addressed” in past weeks and years at WHS.

“It has reached a point where Hanukkah and swastikas found in Westfield share a common trait: they both occur once a year,” said WHS senior Josh Sacher, noting that this particular incident happened during the Jewish holiday. “Unfortunately, I’ve come to expect these acts of anti-Semitism and hatred,” he added.

Speakers called for a more proactive approach in the district, such as revamping the district’s Holocaust curriculum, which both Miss Sexton and Miss Cohen said they feel has not been properly addressed since the fifth grade. Mr. Sacher said the first time he has felt like he took a “deep dive” into the Holocaust was this school year. “Hate and anti-Semitism are fueled by ignorance, and the only way to combat ignorance is education,” he said.

Parent Julie Steinberg said the curriculum, which is available through the district’s website, is “weak.” She said it is “a highly complex matrix that cuts across multiple disciplines,” which makes it difficult for teachers and administrators to pinpoint specific components.

Residents also voiced concerns over the severity of the consequences if a perpetrator is caught. Ms. Steinberg pointed to an incident a few years ago when the responsible party was caught and there was debate about whether the enforcement of consequences was “strong enough.” Mike Cohen, another WHS parent, said the consequences need to be clear. “The code of conduct is vague,” said Mr. Cohen.

Dr. González addressed some of these concerns after the public-comment section, saying the “attempts by the administration to involve students was to ensure that they have a voice” and that their concerns and frustrations have been heard.

The school-wide discussion referred to by Miss Cohen is planned for Monday, December 20, according to an article published by the WHS newspaper, Hi’s Eye, on December 10. The reason for the delay, said Dr. González, is not based on a “lack of urgency” but rather to make sure staff is prepared to handle the discussion “in the most productive and helpful way possible.”

Dr. González said he has reached out to Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center and the director of its Diversity Council, which the district has had a past relationship with, this week and that the district will continue that conversation. He said he looks forward to sharing those plans in the future.

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