Following a spate of anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic incidents in recent months and years at East Brunswick schools, a group of parents and students have faulted officials with failing to educate students on the wrongs of intolerance.
Based on multiple interviews and discussions during board of education meetings, parents and students claim that there were three incidents in the last few months that occurred in local public schools where Jewish students found racially charged graffiti on their desks, or received notes with anti-Semitic messages.
Other parents told NJJN that students have thrown pennies — a reference to the stereotype of Jews being stingy — at their children, who were told to pick them up, and another woman said her son was called “a dumb Jew” on the school bus. Jews have not been the only targets, as other incidents include Muslim students being taunted in hallways and Hispanic students subjected to remarks implying they are illegal, as well as a widely shared Instagram photo of students in blackface.
Parents have accused the school board with being slow to react and not taking their complaints seriously. The most recent incidents were first brought to NJJN’s attention by Jon Dressner, whose daughter, Bailey, is in the ninth-grade biology class at Churchill Junior High School.
“We want to call them on their lies and inaction,” he said.
The first incident with an anti-Semitic message took place on March 1 when students found a drawing of Hitler, a swastika, and the words “Kill all the Jews” and “Hail Hitler” written on a desk at Churchill. The second came 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. The last was on May 15, when a note with a swastika and “white is Supreme” was left at Hammarskjold.
Dressner said that the offensive graffiti on the desk at Churchill was reported to police, but he and his ex-wife, Lisa, said they were stymied in their efforts to get the district to respond.
After receiving the incident report for the ‘Kill the Jews’ incident, Dressner said they learned that the principal at the junior high did not report the incident on the day it happened, contrary to what he had been told. “I believe they only reported it after my note to the principal the day after the incident occurred,” said Dressner. “We cannot be lied to by our public officials. They are literally hiding these incidents from public view and it’s very wrong.”
The first official statement from the East Brunswick Board of Education was read at a regularly scheduled meeting on May 4, followed by an email to district parents.
“I pledge to you that we are fully engaged in reviewing our responses to alleged bias incidents. We have already identified, planned, and in some circumstances initiated, purposeful actions,” said schools superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski. According to his statement, since the May 4 meeting the district has been working with law enforcement and Middlesex County to develop “additional programming for both students and staff to specifically address bias awareness, reporting and consequences.” His comments were posted to the board of education’s website.
Valeski did not return multiple calls to NJJN, but he apologized in an April 25 email to Jon Dressner, which he shared with NJJN, writing, “from your point of view I would feel the same way. I anticipate board approval of an email blast this Thursday.”
However, nothing was sent to parents until more than a week later. In an email Valeski sent to Dressner on May 1, he said that he had discussed the incident at Churchill and the Dressners’ concerns with the school board, but indicated that it had chosen not to address it publicly.
“The board did not support a blanket statement,” Valeski wrote.
In Valeski statement from the May 4 meeting, he outlined district responses, including school-wide assemblies at elementary and Hammarskjold, small group discussions at Churchill and East Brunswick High School, and meetings with district staff about ways to “raise awareness about bias, harassment, intimidation, and bullying.”
In addition, next year at meetings with parents the district will talk about “creating a bias-free school environment and strengthening the Staff-Student-Family connection.”
But the Dressners, who also think the school should bring in educational curriculum to combat hate, such as the ADL’s “A World of Difference,” said they are disturbed by the school’s refusal to take immediate action, which they said only occurred after the Dressners forced their hand. According to Dressner, the board sent the letter to parents addressing the situation only after he threatened to speak to the press and discuss it over social media.
“We gave them two months to do the right thing,” said Jon Dressner. “I found it particularly disturbing because five members of the school board are Jewish.”
During a subsequent meeting on May 11, board president Todd Simmens said the board had a “zero tolerance” policy toward bias and it had programs in place designed to foster respect among students. He added that the board was not aware of many of the incidents because they were not reported to police, something he urged parents to do.
Simmens said he was sympathetic, having been the brunt of many anti-Semitic incidents as one of only six Jews in his Pennsylvania high school. Board vice president Vicki Becker also recounted her own experiences in elementary and high school, where she was singled out for being Jewish.
Students and parents told NJJN that they or their children had been subjected to other hateful incidents in recent years.
Karen Goldstein, the mother of four children — one of whom is still in the school system — related a story which she said occurred several years ago, though it hasn’t been corroborated with school officials. She said a girl spat on her daughter and called her a “Jew dyke” in the girls’ locker room at Churchill while other girls “cheered her on.” The assistant principal called all the girls to the office after her daughter complained, but, according to Goldstein, in the end her daughter was told she was being “oversensitive.” Goldstein also said her son experienced anti-Semitism for years, including having pennies thrown at him on the school bus; Goldstein was one of several Jewish parents who told NJJN that coins had been tossed at their children.
Other racially charged incidents that were related to NJJN include:
• Alexander Dressner, Jon and Lisa’s son, now a rising sophomore at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, said once students proclaimed a “Kick a Jew Day” when he was at Hammarskjold.
• Olga Starr was upset her son at Hammarskjold looked up the word “faggot” because he had heard it in school so many times.
• Lenore Elfand said students at Churchill teased her daughter, who is half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, by implying that she was not a legal U.S. resident.
• A woman, who asked not to be identified because she feared repercussions for her son, said two months ago on a bus to Hammarskjold her son had been called “a dumb Jew.”
• John Diaz, a ninth grader at Churchill who is Hispanic, said he is frequently told “mow the lawn,” and “You’re illegal, go back.”
• Iqra Masoud, a senior at East Brunswick High School and a Muslim, said she has had problems since she began wearing a hijab head covering in the ninth grade, and has been taunted with slurs and intimations that she is a terrorist. She also said she has heard jokes and slurs against Jews, LGBT students, and other minorities.
“This isn’t just a reaction to the current political climate,” said Goldstein. “It’s a systemic cultural failure.”
In response to these concerns, members of the East Brunswick board of education, as well as town officials, have reached out to the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, which has been proactive in addressing issues of hate and intolerance.
“We are looking at ways to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice throughout our schools and communities,” said executive director Keith Krivitzky. “We look forward to working with the school district and our partners at the Anti-Defamation League and other local organizations to be aggressive in rooting out these and similar incidents.”
The ADL quarterly report, released April 24, showed an 86 percent jump in anti-Semitic incidents in the beginning of 2017 compared to the same period last year. That follows an increase of 34 percent in the number of anti-Semitic incidents from 2015 to 2016. The states with the largest Jewish populations had the most incidents, with New Jersey ranking third, after California and New York, with 157 in 2016 and 24 in the first quarter of 2017.
On its website, the ADL said, there has been a “massive increase in the amount of harassment of American Jews, particularly since November, and a doubling in the amount of anti-Semitic bullying and vandalism at non-denominational K-12 grade schools.”
NJ region ADL executive director Josh Cohen told NJJN the state has mirrored those national trends and figures, with anti-Semitic incidents up 14 percent over last year.
“These alleged incidents are a sobering reminder that New Jersey is not immune to anti-Jewish hate,” said Cohen, who said that all incidents should be reported to local authorities and the ADL. “It’s imperative that school and community leaders speak out against anti-Semitism, hate, and all forms of bigotry. Schools must provide environments that focus on learning and are free of racism and bigotry.”