Students Tell Education Board About Antisemitism In Schools

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BOSTON (State House News Service— Two high school students gave state education officials a sense Tuesday of how some students are feeling as incidents of antisemitism and hate proliferate across Massachusetts, and one urged the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to do more to ensure that students are learning specifically about the Holocaust in their classrooms.

Board chair Katherine Craven called the comments from students -- one who attends Brookline High School and another who attends Holliston High School -- "troubling" and asked Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to pull together details from curriculum frameworks "to ensure that the appropriate opportunities are there for students to learn about the Holocaust, in particular, in either civics or history frameworks."

Massachusetts recorded the country's sixth-highest rate of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault in 2022, as well as the second-highest number of white supremacist propaganda incidents, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. And the Bay State logged 440 general hate crime incidents last year, according to a report from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. That was the highest volume since 2002, the governor's office said.

Sarah, a sophomore at Holliston High School, told the board that she was shocked by the amount of antisemitic incidents she routinely witnessed when she started attending school in Holliston two years ago. She said the problem "only got worse" when she moved up to high school.

"I've seen students performing the Nazi salute during the Pledge of Allegiance, airdropping pictures of swastikas during assemblies, saying things like 'Hitler was right' in the halls, and not to mention the all-too-often inscriptions of swastikas on the bathrooms and on the desks," Sarah said. "It is terrifying how misinformed and misguided many of the students at my school are and it breaks my heart to see my friends become uncomfortable, quiet and even tearful as a reaction. No students should feel threatened, unwelcome or ashamed of their religion. I asked my friends in other school districts whether or not they have this issue at their school too. Unfortunately, it seems to be more than just a local problem. Leaving this pressing matter to worsen in our schools directly conflicts with the Department of Education's value of inclusion and mission to prepare students for success."

Sarah said she remembers watching a "brief six- or seven-slide presentation on the Holocaust" in eighth grade before reading Elie Wiesel's "Night." She said she was told by a curriculum coordinator that the Holocaust lesson was overshadowed by other units and standards that had to be taught by the end of the year. And, she said, most of her fellow students don't even remember the lesson.

"I think it's truly a shame that such an important lesson had such little impact," Sarah said. She added, "It is especially a shame because if it was just given enough time, this education could have not only greatly mitigated this pandemic of hate speech, but could have also inspired students to stand up against hate. It could have taught the eighth-graders valuable lessons they wouldn't forget and carry with them into their high school careers. It is not just enough for education about antisemitism and the Holocaust to be simply existing in our curriculum frameworks, it needs a clear-cut and protected place and it needs to be of high quality."

Later in Tuesday's meeting, Riley said that the rise in antisemitism is "troubling" but said there was "one misconception I will clear up."

"I would say that both antisemitism and the Holocaust are in our history frameworks. We have a FAQ on genocide around the world in various places, and that work is ever-evolving," he said. "So, you know, I'd really like to be able to come before the board at the next board meeting and go even deeper on this, if that's something that is the will of the committee."

Two years ago, the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law mandating that public schools teach students the history of some of the world's worst atrocities, like the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. The law mandates public schools in Massachusetts teach the history of genocide, spurred DESE to develop a genocide education framework, and also established a Genocide Education Trust Fund to help districts develop curriculum, host trainings, and provide professional development courses.

"We all realized that too many districts were failing to teach to the state standard regarding genocide, thus increasing the probability that history could repeat itself, a concern unfortunately heightened by recent increases in antisemitic and racist behaviors in some of our schools," Rep. Alice Peisch, who at the time was House chair of the Education Committee, said in 2021.

Riley on Tuesday also noted that he was with Gov. Maura Healey on Monday as she announced that 10 school districts would receive grants totaling nearly $462,000 to cover professional development for educators, community engagement and other efforts to clamp down on bias incidents and hate crimes. The administration also made another $340,000 in funding available to school districts that have experienced hate crimes or incidents of bias in the last two years but have not received grant money this year.

The board also heard Tuesday from Yuval, a senior at Brookline High School. She told the board that "in our time of greatest suffering, the town of Brookline was there to drive a knife into those wounds" in the wake of Hamas's Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel. She also told the board that she organized an "affinity space" for Jewish students during advisory periods but said the school was not particularly helpful and eventually told the students to meet on their own time.

"With the war and rise in antisemitism, I felt a space was crucial. Hundreds of people showed up to our space -- students, teachers -- and they sat together, sharing about their families, crying together, speaking about their confusion and loneliness and pain," Yuval said. "The stories of war were heartbreaking. But to be clear, the stories about the school's lack of care was even more. Almost every single student reported receiving little to no support or acknowledgement from their teachers."

Written by Colin A. Young/SHNS

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