ZOA calls on California school officials to fight anti-Semitism

October 9, 2017
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For years, Jewish college students across the country have been harassed and intimidated.  Frighteningly, this ugly problem is seeping into our high schools and even our middle and elementary schools.

In Alameda, California, middle and elementary schools have been defaced with swastikas and a Jewish elementary school student reportedly received a death threat.  Under pressure from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the parents of Natasha Waldorf – who received multiple anti-Semitic threats at Alameda High School – Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) officials are finally admitting that anti-Semitism is a problem and that they’ve made mistakes in how they’ve responded to it.  But they are still not doing what’s needed.

The AUSD must implement a prevention, protection, and proscription plan.  Prevention means educating students and families about anti-Semitism and making it clear that harassing Jewish students won’t be tolerated.  Protection means adequately training staff to recognize, stop and report anti-Semitism.  Proscription means effectively responding to anti-Semitism, including by publicly condemning it, appropriately disciplining wrongdoers, and ensuring that targeted students are protected.

AUSD’s current protocols have failed.  School officials never asked Natasha to formally report any of the anti-Semitic threats she endured from classmates last year, even though California law requires districts to have a process to receive and investigate harassment complaints.

Staff aren’t adequately trained to recognize and respond to anti-Semitism.  In school hallways last year, Natasha heard students call each other “kike” and say, “Don’t be such a Jew” – as if being Jewish is something horrible.  Teachers were present when these comments were made.  Even though California law requires them to immediately intervene when they witness an act of discrimination, teachers didn’t even look up, let alone intercede, to stop this blatant anti-Semitism.

Staff minimize anti-Semitism that goes beyond name-calling.  When two students told Natasha and a Jewish classmate that “Hitler should have finished the job” – meaning that Natasha, her Jewish classmate, their families, and all Jews should have been murdered – Natasha and her Jewish classmate reported the incident to a teacher who failed to report it and refused their request to report it themselves.  When Natasha and her friend later told the Assistant Principal about the incident, he refused to acknowledge that they had been physically threatened as Jews.

AUSD officials have not disciplined anti-Semitic bullies in any serious way and have failed to protect the targeted Jewish students.  After Natasha was threatened, school officials never even required the bullies to apologize to her.  They gave no thought to Natasha’s physical and emotional well-being, and instead added to her trauma by leaving the bullies in her classes for the rest of the school year, where she had to face them day after day.  At a minimum, the bullies should have been moved to another class or even to another school, and Natasha should have been offered whatever support she needed.  At the start of this academic year, a school official summoned Natasha to ask who her bullies were, so that they would not be in her classes this year.  School officials would have had this information since last January, had there been an appropriate reporting and documenting system in place.

AUSD’s community outreach has been abysmal.  The Alameda High School principal admitted in a recent newsletter that he deliberately kept the many anti-Semitic incidents quiet, feebly explaining that he was trying to “prevent copycat behavior.”  Instead, he provided cover for the anti-Semites and sent the message that the AUSD would tolerate the harassment of its Jewish students.

For months, the ZOA and the Waldorf family have been recommending that the district implement a prevention, protection and proscription plan, consistent with the U.S. Department of Education’s anti-bullying recommendations.  In September, Natasha addressed Alameda’s City Council, urging them to insist that the district take action.  Her courageous advocacy has, so far, been met with shameful silence.

Also in September, Natasha’s father addressed the Board of Education, imploring them to act.  If the AUSD were truly committed to finally addressing anti-Semitism, Board members would have expressed deep remorse over the AUSD’s response to Natasha’s suffering, as well as their specific plans to respond effectively to anti-Semitism.  Instead, in what appeared to be an orchestrated effort, two teachers – who do not teach at Alameda High School and thus lack personal knowledge of what Natasha endured – praised the Superintendent’s response to anti-Semitism and attacked the Waldorf family.  The teachers said they were speaking as district employees, and falsely suggested that the family was refusing to work with the district, falsely suggested that the family was lying about what they endured, and wrongly blamed the family for the AUSD’s failures.  Board members, the Superintendent, and AUSD’s counsel were present.  Not a single one intervened to challenge the teachers and make it clear that they were not authorized to speak on the district’s behalf and were wrong to do so.

AUSD’s shameful indifference to the safety and well-being of Jewish students is particularly disgraceful, because it has readily responded when other groups were perceived to be at risk.  The AUSD passed a resolution declaring itself a “safe haven” for all students, to ease the fears of immigrant students and their families.  It held workshops for immigrant families, and for Arabic-speaking and Muslim families.  It formed an LGBTQ Round Table.  The district’s mantra is “everyone belongs here,” but when comparatively little attention is paid to anti-Semitism, the district is not making it clear that “everyone” includes Jews.

Unless AUSD officials finally implement a plan to do everything they can to eliminate anti-Semitism, they should be replaced by individuals truly committed to protecting all, not just the non-Jewish students in their care.  Effective leadership is imperative before anti-Semitic threats lead to something more serious, including violence.

SUSAN B. TUCHMAN is the director of the ZOA Center for Law and Justice.

DAVID KADOSH is the executive director of the Zionist Organization of America West Coast chapter.

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