East Brunswick school bias incidents linked to groups of students
District will expand tolerance education in upcoming school year
A string of anti-Semitic, racial, and bias incidents in East Brunswick schools have been linked to a small group of students, an investigation by district and police authorities has determined.
In an interview with NJJN, schools superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski said authorities now believe that the latest incident — an anti-Semitic message scrawled on playground equipment at the Lawrence Brook Elementary School on June 9 — and another earlier this month at Lawrence Brook, in which the N-word was found on a playground slide, were committed by the same student responsible for a March 1 incident at Churchill Junior High School. In that incident, reported by NJJN on May 30, a drawing of Hitler, a swastika, and the words “Kill all the Jews” and “Hail Hitler” was found on a desk. The individual may be part of a small group of students responsible for many of the homophobic, racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic indents in district schools, according to Valeski. The East Brunswick police have sent the messages to be analyzed by handwriting experts, he said.
“Our suspicions were raised when the messages went from anti-Semitic, to racial, to mixed messages on the playground,” said Valeski. “That’s when we started dialing into the students we should be talking to and were immediately able to eliminate a lot of people.”
The issue came to a head after a parent, Jon Dressner, contacted NJJN two months after the March 1 incident in his daughter’s ninth grade biology class at Churchill. Dressner said the graffiti on the desk was reported to police, but that he and his ex-wife, Lisa, were stymied in their efforts to get the district to respond. In an effort to draw attention to the problem, they organized students who either witnessed or been the victims of bias incidents to tell their stories to the press or appear before the board of education.
Valeski said the student who drew the picture of Hitler and wrote the anti-Semitic message on the desk has already been suspended for several days. He defended the district’s handling of the situation, including Dressner’s complaint that the incident was not reported to police by the school’s principal until the next day, saying that district policy doesn’t specify when police have to be notified.
The delay was a result of the district opening an internal investigation before involving the authorities, Valeski said. The district estimated at least 600 Churchill students could have been by the desk from the time it was seen without the drawing until it was found defaced. “Immediately” after the graffiti was found, he said, the district conducted a number of interviews to compile a list of possible suspects for the police.
“That’s why the police were not immediately brought in…we didn’t know anything to give the police,” Valeski said, adding, “In the three years I have been superintendent, we have reported every case.”
The district received confirmation from both the police and Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office that it followed proper protocol, according to Valeski.
A second incident occurred on May 1, when a note was left on a Jewish student’s desk with a swastika and the letters “KYS,” an acronym for “Kill Yourself,” at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School; and a third on May 15, when a note with a swastika and “white is Supreme” was left at Hammarskjold.
The student behind the May 15 incident was identified after she “self-reported” to a guidance counselor saying that the notebook with the offending note belonged to her but she didn’t write the swastika or “white is Supreme.” Valeski said a handwriting comparison proved otherwise, but at this time the district hasn’t imposed disciplinary measures for reasons Valeski said he could not discuss.
Olga Starr said her fourth grade son was on the playground during recess at Lawrence Brook when the offensive graffiti referencing “killing the Jews” and Hitler’s name was found. The children were quickly moved away from the equipment and Principal Elizabeth Dunn immediately called police; photos were taken and the slurs removed. Starr praised Dunn for her actions, which included alerting parents and going into the classrooms of the older grades with a counselor to discuss the incident.
“I emailed her and she got back to me in like two minutes,” said Starr, adding that while she was pleased in this instance, “I don’t think it’s a consistent policy.”
Starr, who had previously told NJJN she was upset that her son at Hammarskjold felt the need to look up the word “faggot,” having heard it so often in school, said she has never reported various incidents involving her three children because she thought they were isolated occurrences.
“I would like to see a district-wide meeting for parents to talk about what is going on, what is expected going forward, what’s being hidden and what we’re hearing, and to get parent input about what we’d like to see,” she said. “I’d also like to see some sort of mechanism for informing parents so we can discuss it with our children.”
The district investigation concluded that students who admitted they were involved were not prejudiced against the targeted group, rather they thought “they were being funny,” said Valeski, not realizing their actions could hurt others.
Valeski said although the district has extensive anti-bias education at all grade levels, a list of which was provided to NJJN, it planned to expand its tolerance education next year. To this end, they have been in contact with NJ region Anti-Defamation League executive director Josh Cohen and the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
NJJN’s story from May 30 included several additional allegations of racially insensitive incidents in the district. The reason these were not addressed, Valeski said, is most were never reported.
“As we begin the next school year, if we have incidents students and staff need to report them,” he said. “We can’t investigate them if we don’t know they’re happening. We had a few incidents at the beginning of the year at the high school that were witnessed by teachers and students and immediately reported. [The offending] students were disciplined immediately with suspensions.”
Federation CEO Keith Krivitzky agreed with this point about the importance of reporting bias incidents.
When these crimes go unreported, “What does that say about the education and comfort and pride we’re instilling in our young people?” he asked. “To me that’s an even more serious question. Kids don’t want to rock the boat and I think there’s an element involved of who they are and their pride in being Jews, and maybe we have to do more educationally.”
Krivitzky said his conversations with school officials have indicated a strong desire to be proactive in dealing with bias.
“We’re seeking to be constructive and help them address the issue,” he said. “We’re happy to connect them with resources.”
However, Krivitzky said that the federation has been concerned with rising anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry in area schools for months and it has been strategizing with partners on how best to deal with the situation. Federation is already funding a program to increase sensitivity training for law enforcement, and it allocates funds for two local institutions that provide tolerance education: the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, and the Daniel Pearl Education Center affiliated with Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick.
“We intend to be proactive in funding more,” Krivitzky said, and “tailoring and making resources accessible to our partners throughout the region.”
The East Brunswick district is not the only one with these experiences, Krivitzky thinks, and he said that others would be equally unprepared if the incidents became public.
“The challenge is when these things actually happen it encourages everybody to throw in everything that ever happened, even long ago, and it distorts reality,” he said. “The other thing is that it encourages copycat activities like the recent one on the playground.
“I’m not minimizing the events, but I don’t think East Brunswick is special or unique. I think they got caught and dinged this time, and credit to those who brought the issue up, but my guess is that these same incidents are happening in half the districts in our area.”
Valeski said it was “disheartening” to hear charges the district doesn’t take bias incidents seriously. He said a district-wide staff meeting was held recently to ensure they knew they were required to report any incidents involving bias, but said parents have to “close the loop” by discussing the issue of bigotry and attending school events.
“We pride ourselves on our significant diversity in East Brunswick and we’ve become more diverse each year with families who’ve escaped oppression in other countries,” said Valeski. “But this has to come with tolerance and understanding of other people’s beliefs.”
Sixth and seventh graders attended a recent assembly to discuss the issues, but Valeski said the older students preferred smaller group sessions. He said the district will initiate these sessions next year.
Among the anti-Semitic incidents, a woman said her son was called “a dumb Jew” on the school bus earlier this year, though she admitted that she hadn’t reported it. Also, Karen Goldstein, a mother of four children — one of whom is still in the school system —has complained of a number of incidents over the years, including her rising junior son having pennies tossed at him on the bus, a reference to the stereotype of Jews being stingy. She said she called the district transportation office but the superintendent at the time — this was before Valeski’s tenure — did not respond.
“I think East Brunswick operates in sort of a bubble where they are reactionary,” said Goldstein. “Other districts come out with this information immediately, not wait two months for people to show up at a board meeting. They have to start teaching in elementary school words hurt as much as fists. Even if they do come forward, the kids know nothing will be done and they don’t want to be the narc that gets harassed in school and online.”