Column: Anti-Jewish Harassment: No Excuse for a Student’s Trauma

“Four out of five children in the Gaza Strip say they live with depression, grief and fear,” says Americans for Peace Now in announcing a Sept. 1 webinar.

No argument here. The children of Gaza have undergone a range of traumatic experiences, so it should not surprise any of us that their mental health is ravaged. This is not about assessing blame on the causes of the conflict, but rather about how such situations impact the children.

It should surprise us that a Jewish student at Altadena Middle School located in the southern tip of Phoenix experienced trauma for a longer period than she should have. Of course, she should never have experienced any of it, but school officials allegedly allowed the situation to persist.

That experience included a video of a student who carried a rifle while pretending to speak German and mimicking a Nazi soldier, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports. Another video depicts multiple students in a school classroom making Nazi salutes, uttering in a German accent, “(t)his is the most glorious time in our country.”

The Arabs have an excuse: Their society is severely dysfunctional from the outset. In Gaza, the 2 million people there must live amid an ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas and other terrorist groups that lead to deaths and injuries of civilians.

On balance, America is a civilized nation which has developed procedures in the legal system and elsewhere for confronting injustice, but of course America fails to live up to all of its promise. At the least, Jewish students around the country have publicly complained about antisemitic harassment.

JTA reports that last week the Kyrene School District, which comprises Altadena Middle School, was cited by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for failing to respond appropriately to the antisemitic harassment of the aforementioned unidentified student, who we will call Rachel. In so doing, OCR said the school district violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

According to JTA, Rachel reported to principal James Martin that nine other students harassed her at school and on social media for five months during the 2018-2019 school year. Video evidence included the Nazi-style episodes mentioned above.

Prior to this abuse, Rachel was enrolled in honors courses and afterwards she enrolled in another district where she was placed in remedial classes. In between, she underwent homeschooling before returning to in-person schooling in the other district.

OCR found that the principal “failed to provide timely, specific, and clear communication to school staff regarding the harassment of the student,” and that he failed to properly inform his staff of the situation, leaving them unprepared to monitor or identify ongoing harassment, JTA reports.

In addition, the school district did not address harassment across the school as it did not take “any schoolwide measures to address the antisemitic harassment until several months after confirming its existence, which allowed a potential hostile environment to persist in the school,” OCR stated.

The only schoolwide measure to specifically address antisemitic harassment was not implemented until seven months after the principal learned of the harassment experienced by Rachel, according to JTA. This training was only for staff, not students, which OCR said permitted a “potential hostile environment to persist.”

As an understatement, Jolie Brislin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, commended Rachel’s parents who made certain “to hold the school district accountable to make sure that no other student has to be put in this situation.”

No other student? Why wasn’t Rachel protected in the first place? America’s system of government was established 233 years ago and slavery ended more than 75 years later. Our awareness of civil rights has evolved during the last 70 years. We cannot account for the attitudes of individual citizens, but senior officials of a school district or any other system should know better.

We cannot expect perfection from leaders of any given organization, but what happened at Kyrene was disgraceful negligence. School officials should have acted from the outset to attempt to nip this situation in the bud. If they cannot understand that, they are not qualified for their jobs.

They might argue that they are located in a backwoods community where antisemitic harassment, and other forms of abuse, are common practice – not that Phoenix and its suburbs sound like that. People there may be bigoted, but school officials with advanced degrees must be above that and make plans to deal with it.

Antisemitic harassment is prevalent at other public schools. Students have filed lawsuits against schools in Monmouth County, N.J., and upstate New York.

Compounding that, school officials are frequently conscious of a school’s image to the point that they will deny culpability or rationalize about their response to a problem.

Rachel is fortunate, relatively, that she is not an Arab child in Gaza, as Americans for Peace Now states: “Fifteen years of violence, blockade, poverty and shortage in water and electricity have created a pernicious state of distress and hopelessness among Gaza’s 2 million residents.”

APN implicates Israel with that comment, though it neglects to mention that terrorists initiate the violence; that Hamas does not care about governing; Israel blockades Gaza to prevent weapons from being smuggled there; and limits travel into Israel to prevent terrorists from entering the country.

Certainly, neither Rachel nor these children in Gaza should experience trauma no what is the scale of these episodes. The Arabs must confront their challenges from the ground up, lacking the foundation we have in America. We have the ability to self-correct now.

Let’s get on with it. For Rachel, for all of us.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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