After anti-semitic vandalism, life goes on at Calabasas High

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On April 27, just hours after three Calabasas High School students had been arrested in connection with the anti-Semitic and racist graffiti scrawled on their school’s campus late on the night of April 22, life at this well-groomed, suburban public school seemed to be back to almost normal.

When school employees arrived in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 23, they found the paved walkway between the 11th-graders’ parking lot and the school campus covered with swastikas, along with various other walls and lockers. But by nightfall that same day, the only evidence that remained was a few spots of faded concrete.

On April 26, three male 11th-graders, who have been described as “4.0 students,” confessed the vandalism to investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Their names have not been released because they are minors. After their arrests, the three were released into their parents’ custody.

A spokesman said that the Sheriff’s Department will push for hate crime enhancements in addition to felony vandalism charges against the alleged vandals, which are expected to be filed shortly, once the investigation is completed.

Local news outlets have devoted significant coverage to the incident. A TV news van sat parked in front of the school for much of the afternoon on April 27, right beside the site of the school’s new $18 million performing arts center, which is expected to be completed by next year.

But while some on campus expressed anger at the students believed to be behind the graffiti, by the afternoon of April 27, a calm atmosphere prevailed at Calabasas High School. For every angry student or parent, Jewish or otherwise, there seemed to be equal numbers who seemed unfazed.

Alan Bell, a Jewish father of an 11th-grader, sat in his pickup truck, waiting in the carpool line. “I think she was concerned, but I don’t think she was bothered,” Bell said of his daughter.

“This has happened before,” Bell added, referring to a January 2010 incident when a Jewish student at Calabasas High School found a swastika carved into the hood of his car. Nobody was found in connection with that case.

“As a student body, we’ve really come closer together,” Josh Levin, an 11th-grader who was recently elected student body president, said of the aftermath of the vandalism.

“There was a point when students were very angry,” Levin said. “There were petitions online to have physical retribution and things like that, but there were a bunch of student leaders who said this isn’t a good idea. It’s not good to fight violence with violence.”

Alan Levy, a Jewish 11th-grader, seemed more surprised than distressed. “It’s pretty ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody would do this.”

The “why” question remains mostly unanswered.

Principal C.J. Foss said that the students who vandalized their school were angrier with the school in general than they were at members of one specific ethnic or religious group. “They felt like they had been mistreated, that they had been insulted, and they wanted to hurt back the school,” she said.

The graffiti included racist remarks against blacks and Latinos, and swastikas, which are often considered to be equal-opportunity offenders. Nevertheless, the scrawlings — which included the names of four Jewish students in the 11th grade as well as the names of two 11th-grade teachers — appeared to have been particularly anti-Semitic.

Foss said that was due to Calabasas High School’s large Jewish population. Estimating that at least 60 percent of the school’s students are Jewish, Foss said that the alleged vandals focused their anger on “high-profile” Jewish students.

“One of them said he didn’t even know one of the boys” whose name was included in the graffiti, Foss said, “but he knew that he was the president of the Jewish club. And if the perception of the school is that this is a Jewish school, and you want to hurt them, I think that’s why they chose the Nazi flag and those symbols.”

Members of the media, law enforcement and school administration have said nothing publicly about the three 11th-graders. But on April 27, rumors were circulating among the students at Calabasas High about which of their classmates had confessed to the vandalism.

“My kids are saying that by next week we’ll know who they are, because we’ll know who isn’t showing up,” Sheri Salimi, the mother of two Calabasas High School students, said.

According to a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, when the three alleged vandals confessed, they told investigators that the students whose names they had scrawled across the walkway had been “picking on” them throughout the school year.

But those who knew the students whose names were mentioned in the graffiti didn’t believe that was the case.

“I know many of the kids personally, and to say that they were really harassing other students or things like that would be the biggest shocker in my mind,” Levin said.

Levin was sitting in the outdoor lunch area at Calabasas High School on April 27, taking a short break from his late-afternoon class in broadcast media. Behind him, a dozen girls on the school’s dance team huddled around a picnic table eating a pizza, laughing.

“There’s going to be a high school bully anywhere you go,” Levin said. “I guarantee you, all the students named on that list are not the typical high school bully.”

Principal Foss sees this as a reminder of how important engaging students on the fringes can be. “We all spend a lot of time on the campus,” she said, “and I purposely try to go up to the kid that’s sitting by himself, engage him in a conversation. It’s something I’m very concerned about and spend a lot of time with.”

Considering how some disaffected students at other schools have expressed their frustration in recent years, Foss said she has thought that Calabasas got lucky in at least one way: The students used cans of spray paint instead of guns to send their hate-filled messages.

“It has occurred to me,” Foss said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “And I have heard that comment from students.”

O.C. Incidents Raise Anti-Semitism Fears

The president of a Los Alamitos high school’s Jewish students’ club came out to the school parking lot last October to find swastikas and “Jew Bitch” scrawled on her car. Across the county, a San Clemente high school student was harassed last year with anti-Jewish slurs to the point that she transferred out of the district.

These two instances in which Jewish students from Orange County were targeted by peers coincide with a broader rise in anti-Semitism, including in schools. Local Jewish groups have sounded an alarm, while the reaction of local school officials has varied.

“There has been a significant rise in the past four years in anti-Semitism generally and on school campuses,” said Dr. Kevin O’Grady, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach Region. O’Grady’s office recorded 43 cases of harassment and vandalism last year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2003; one-third of these involved public schools.

In its 2004 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the ADL documented 1,821 cases of harassment, threats, assault and vandalism against Jews nationwide — up 17 percent from the previous year. This jump was due in part to a spike in reports of anti-Jewish harassment in American middle and high schools.

These incidents have included defacing lockers with swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, bullying and intimidation in hallways and Internet chat rooms. Incidents tend to be spread evenly throughout the county, although Los Alamitos and San Clemente have the most reported cases, according to ADL research. In the northwest corridor, skinheads, with their white supremacist ideology, are actively recruiting teenagers in schools, said ADL regional director Joyce Greenspan.

School administrators are responding to these incidents with varied intensity. In some cases, their actions have been resolute. One Costa Mesa middle school principal notified police and suspended 18 students after a girl was harassed on the Web site, My Space, O’Grady said. In San Clemente, a high school principal met with Jewish leaders following reports of several incidents, and ran tolerance programming for the student body, said Rabbi Mendel Slavin of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente, who attended the meeting.

At Los Alamitos High School, administrators banned clothing bearing an iron cross and other paraphernalia associated with white supremacy.

Districts have also adopted zero-tolerance policies for ethnic-based intimidation and offer sensitivity and diversity training programs to prevent problems before they arise.

“When you see that firm and clear response, you see a drop in anti-Semitic incidents,” ADL’s Greenspan said.

Other schools deny the presence of anti-Semitism on their campuses, even in the face of some evidence to the contrary.

Parents of a Tustin-area 10th-grader perceived the administration’s response to be deficient after reporting that their daughter was being continuously harassed by a fellow student.

“He’d walk by and sneeze and say ‘a Jew,’ and say ‘shalom’ and laugh,” said the 15-year-old girl, who asked to be identified only as K. “In class, I’d hear him talking and I’d hear the word ‘Jew’ and [my name] and I knew he was talking about me. He actually called me a ‘kike’ one time.”

The boy described himself as a Nazi and would talk about how Jews killed Jesus, according to K., who said she felt scared and intimidated.

She reported the harassment to a counselor and was instructed to document the incidents in a statement to the vice principal. Because she was afraid to confront the boy and his parents in a face-to-face meeting, she was told that he could be disciplined only if caught in the act.

When the abuse continued, K.’s parents met with the vice principal, who allegedly said that he would direct teachers to send the boy to the office if he made offensive comments. Not all teachers followed this instruction, according to K. In the face of the boy’s unrelenting taunting, the distraught parents removed their daughter from the school.

“What I’m most upset with are the teachers and the way they allowed it to happen, and the way that the vice principal, after receiving such a powerful statement from K., just did not respond,” said K.’s mother. “I feel that they allowed it.”

Tustin Unified School District officials denied knowledge of this incident, but stated that they do not tolerate racial or religious harassment.

“The safety and security of our campuses is our first priority,” said Ron Heape, Tustin Unified’s district administrator for child welfare and attendance. “We are not timid at all about going after these kids.”

Peer-to-peer anti-Semitism is not limited to high schools.

“Our most recent phone calls have been third- and fourth-grade related,” said the ADL’s O’Grady. In one case, a fourth grader was called “dirty Jew” by two classmates, who then wrote the word “Jew” on a piece of paper, circled it and drew a line through it.

“This is what we do to Jews,” Grady says they said.

ADL officials suspect that only a small percentage of incidents gets reported.

“The numbers are staggering,” agreed Robyn Faintich, director of the Orange County Board of Jewish Education’s (BJE) youth education program. Faintich recounted that at a recent gathering of 110 public school 10th graders, more than 90 percent said they had been targets of anti-Semitic comments, vandalism or other encounters.

“Schools are not mandated to collect data [on hate incidents] so there is no global perspective,” said Georgiann Boyd, student services coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.

For that matter, many incidents never leave the school yard. Fear of being further ostracized prevents some students from reporting confrontations to school or community officials.

“We are aware that there is anti-Semitic activity in the schools,” said Orange County Human Relations Executive Director Rusty Kennedy. “Each year we learn of at least a half-dozen incidents in schools that we’re concerned with, and I’m sure there’s more.”

He said that while the number of cases is too small to indicate a trend, he believes that school-based anti-Semitism is comparable to hate acts in the adult community, in which Jews, African Americans and gays and lesbians are most frequently targeted.

“These things that are happening at an early age are concerning, because this is a taught or learned behavior,” said Heather Williams, director of gang victim services at Community Service Programs, Inc. “These children are learning to be anti-Semitic by their parents and people who they’ve been around for a long time.”