South responds to incidents of hate speech

by Grace Dempsey & Lily Zarr, News Editors
photo by Marty Basaria

Since the beginning of March, Principal Tamara Stras has informed the South community of three instances of hate speech through email. Stras has reported on toilet paper shaped into a noose found in a boys’ bathroom on March 16 and two separate instances of antisemitic graffiti in bathrooms on March 23 and 28.

When a community member reports hate speech, house deans begin an investigation and the school notifies the Newton Police Department and Anti-Defamation League, history teacher and South Human Rights Council (SHRC) Co-Director Robert Parlin said.

Although South must hide the identities of students who are responsible for hate speech to comply with federal law, Stras wrote in a March 29 email to parents that perpetrators are disciplined accordingly, as is the case for the student who drew antisemitic symbols in a boys’ bathroom on March 28.

“I can assure you that appropriate consequences and corrective actions are in process for the individual responsible,” she wrote. “We will continue to work together to help students learn so we can honor and celebrate each other and come together in solidarity.”

The SHRC has an important role in South’s response, Parlin said. When hate speech is reported, he said that the council conveys solidarity to students and teachers through supportive Schoology updates and meetings with affinity groups. 

Despite these efforts, the school’s response has received criticism from people like sophomore Alon Mileguir, who said that hate speech at South has become normalized.

“Whenever something like this happens, we all look, we get the email and then we say ‘okay,’ and then we all move on,” he said. “I don’t think enough people care about it.”

Sophomore Shir Ivanier said that she is disappointed with the administration’s lack of continuous communication with students.

“We hear that something happened, but we don’t hear any updates about it,” she said. “It feels like nothing is happening and nothing is being done about it, especially when it continues to happen all the time.”

History teacher Marcia Okun said that the issue extends past South to all of Newton Public Schools.

“I think the school individually is doing as much as it can, [but] I am concerned that we exist in a larger community,” she said. “We need to think about what’s going on in elementary schools [and] in the middle schools.”

After an instance antisemitic hate speech occured two years ago, junior Daniel Marshak started a petition calling for an increase in Holocaust education that garnered nearly 700 signatures. 

History department head Jennifer Morrill, who was already working with North history department head Greg Drake and the district’s K-8 coordinator Alan Ripp on increasing Holocaust education, reached out to Marshak. 

The 10th grade modern world history curriculum already includes the Holocaust, and Newton Public Schools recently added it to the middle school history curriculum. Marshak said that this inclusion could help prevent future antisemitic hate speech. 

“I could count the number of times I’ve talked about the Holocaust in school, which is very disappointing,” Marshak said. “It’s a really good step that we’re making to prevent these incidents from happening because it all stems from the lack of education.” 

In an effort to further improve education and awareness, Morrill and the Jewish Student Union organized a schoolwide Holocaust symposium hosted by the Lappin Foundation, an organization that promotes Jewish identity. 

They have offered the workshop during Friday WIN blocks in the lecture hall since April 1 and will continue until May 13. The workshop educates students about the details of the Holocaust as well as historical and present-day antisemitism. 

On Wednesday, Jewish Culture Week, which aims to increase understanding of Jewish culture, began. Events are being held in the lecture hall and include student experiences with antisemitism, diversity in the Jewish community and music. 

Despite increased efforts for education, Morrill said the recent hate speech is a harsh reality check that show the steps South still needs to take.

“I just taught the Holocaust unit in my class, and I see how the kids are horrified by it and are impacted by it,” she said. “To have a symbol from that era in this building makes me sad and worried in the sense that we have some work to do if there’s someone in our community who believes that’s okay.”

English teacher and SHRC Co-Director Joana Chacón de Entwistle said that the South community is working hard to properly address hate speech and improve communication.

“No administration is going to solve racism and antisemitism in one year, but what I am seeing is that they’re open to new methods of trying things,” she said. “We’re going through a growing phase where now there is transparency. If you look at us years down the road, it’ll be a lot healthier and a lot more polished.”