Concerns over anti-Semitism and other acts of intolerance are being resurrected in the Pine Bush School District after survey results from a school climate survey revealed a number of students who had reported seeing or hearing acts of intolerance.
The 2018-19 School Climate Student Questionnaire gathered 2,300 responses from the high school and two middle schools.
In the 2018-19 survey, 33 percent of students reported sometimes, often, or frequently to the question, “since September 2017, have you ever heard anti-Semitic slurs, Holocaust “jokes”, the word “Jew” in a pejorative sense, or white power chants, seen Hitler salutes, other students throwing pennies or observed swastikas at your school?”
An additional 27 percent of students responded “rarely” to the same question.
The attorneys at Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff and Abady, LLP, who represented Jewish students who sued the district for indifference surrounding anti-Semitic harassment in 2012, issued a letter in response to the report, stating there is still a shocking amount of anti-Semitism in the school.
“In all, since September 2017, an astonishing 61.91% of District students in these three schools personally witnessed or experienced overt anti-Semitic conduct in school. That percentage reflects 1,424 of 2,300 Pine Bush students surveyed,” the letter stated.
Attorney Ilann Maazel, attorney with Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff and Abady, said the district needs to do more to combat anti-Semitism, such as introducing harsher punishments for students who commit acts of racism.
“There is still a tremendous amount of anti-Semitic conduct in the school district, and that’s unacceptable,” Maazel said. “It needs to change, and I hope the school district redoubles its efforts over the next year to attack this problem.”
Five Jewish students sued for discrimination and the district’s inability to react to that discrimination in 2012, citing drawings of swastikas, white power chants, Nazi salutes, harassment, bullying and more.
In 2015, the suit ended in a $4.48 million settlement from the district, who also agreed to implement changes to its curriculum and policies to combat bullying, racism and anti-Semitism and to conduct student surveys such as this one to track its progress.
The school launched an aggressive response to the lawsuit with programs in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sandy Hook Promise, Safe School Ambassadors and the Orange County District Attorney.
Examples of programs include the No Place for Hate campaign, the training of middle and high school peer leaders, the ADL’s anti-bullying “Be an Ally” program, student assemblies and programs designed to specifically address bullying, bias and discrimination with follow- up classroom discussions, and educational curriculum initiatives such as lesson plans from the ADL website.
Other examples of new curriculum include the Sandy Hook Promise programs “Start with Hello,” and “Say Something,” which teaches elementary students to reach out to others they don’t frequently socialize with and recognize signs of at-risk behaviors.
Students, parents, staff or anyone else in the district can report incidents through the SpeakUP app, which allows individuals to text or call a phone number or email the district to report threats of violence, bullying, weapons brought to school, peers in crisis and other urgent situations.
The district has also brought Holocaust survivors to speak with students and provided training for teachers in conjunction with Israel’s Holocaust Center, Yad Vashem.
The school districts’ programs focus on three main areas: prevention, intervention and correction.
Prevention educates students about each other’s differences and teaches them they can get along with someone who is different from them. Intervention quickly responds to incidents of intolerance and stops the negative behavior. And correction teaches students who commit acts of intolerance why their behavior is wrong and how to correct it.
Superintendent Tim Mains said the district is doing everything it can to stop intolerance. The district’s job is to teach students to respect others’ differences and how certain behaviors may be hurtful to other people.
“I think we’re already doing all the things we need to do,” Mains said.
Mains added those programs will continue indefinitely and the district is constantly tweaking and adding to them. If the district discovers different avenues to combat intolerance, it explores and adds new programs too.
The survey did show improvements.
In the 2018-19 survey, 32 percent of students selected agree or strongly agree to the question, “Since September 2017, students in our school have heard anti-Semitic slurs, observed inappropriate actions in conjunction with anti-Semitic epithets, or observed swastikas in our buildings.”
In the same question in the 2017-18 survey, 44 percent of students selected agree or strongly agree, a 27 percent decrease.
The positive trends in Pine Bush come as anti-Semitism surges in New York. According to the ADL, the total number of anti-Semitic incidents increased by 90 percent from 2016 to 2017, and incidents in K-12 schools doubled, from 18 in 2016 to 36 in 2017. New York experiences the most anti-Semitic incidents out of any U.S. state, with one out of every five incidents occurring in New York.
“The fact that you look at statistics around the country and this problem is increasing elsewhere and it’s not increasing here, we must be doing something right,” Mains said.
Mains said that while there are always consequences to negative actions, harsher punishments miss the area of correction, and aren’t as effective in stopping intolerance.
“We don’t just react and punish,” Mains said, “we try to educate.”
The survey question the law firm referenced was created by that firm. Mains said the question was flawed because it had too many examples, confusing language and language that many high schoolers and most middle schoolers would not understand.
While the surveys provide useful information, they do not capture the number of actual incidents, Mains said.
The district will always be concerned about any acts of intolerance, Mains said.
“Any time we see or hear bias it concerns us,” Mains said, “and our responsibility is to teach, to help kids learn how to be successful in a pluralistic society.”