Education News

Jewish kids at Mount Abe express concerns

BRISTOL — In the wake of events at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School last week, three Jewish students at the school have written a joint statement, received by the Independent on Dec. 6, detailing their concerns about the school’s everyday environment.

Fearful of being targeted, they chose to issue the statement anonymously.

“To much of the student body, these events may feel like a stand alone issue,” they wrote. “However, as members of a minority group, we face these threats and discomforts daily. The reality is, the events of Thursday the 2nd were not unusual for us or many other targeted students.

“Our concerns at school extend beyond the blatant displays of white supremacy on that specific day,” they continued. “White supremacy has always been an issue at Mt. Abe, and the events this past week are a result of complacency and a lack of action by the administration. For too long now, students have spoken up about white supremacy in our school community, however our fears are often minimized and dismissed. Had our concerns been listened to and properly addressed, we strongly believe this situation could have been avoided.

“Every day, we go into school scared that something will go wrong and we won’t make it out. Our concerns surpass simple discomfort. We are terrified for our mental and physical safety to the extent that we feel our lives could be threatened. We are frightened of our peers and their ability to hurt us in their use of hate symbols and speech and we are disheartened and angry at the school’s lack of action.

“Mt. Abe is continually pouring support and resources towards the perpetrators of this hate and as much as we understand the importance of this, resources must be allotted to help the trauma the victims currently face.

The students acknowledged that the general population at the school is scared.

“However, it’s important to recognize that these feelings are elevated for minority groups,” they said. “Many of us have been feeling the fear that has now reached the rest of the school throughout our time at Mt. Abe. It’s unfortunate that it has taken an incident that targets white people as well to make our concerns heard. The general discomfort of the student body is amplified greatly in minority groups.

“As Jewish students, we walked into school on Monday terrified. We found ourselves instinctively locating every exit and hiding place in every room we entered and surveying every face we passed for signs of aggression. School has continued on similarly to normal, with an added police presence. To us, this feels like avoiding the issues at hand although we do understand the pressure to return to normalcy as soon as possible.”

But that “normalcy,” they said, didn’t work for some people, especially minorities. It was “an environment where hate thrived because it wasn’t addressed. So as minority students, it is disappointing to see the school try to return to that.”

Instead of returning to that “normal,” they said, “it is time to address the white supremacy in our school. No more excuses, no more waiting. We demand change now.”

SCHOOL RESPONSE

The Independent shared the student statement with Mount Abe Principal Shannon Warden and asked for a response.

On Wednesday morning, Warden expressed empathy for the students and concerns about what they were experiencing.

“It is safe to say that there is racism in all schools,” she said. “Ours is not alone in that. Racism has been institutionalized in our country. So when we get reports and we hear certain things, we investigate. We take that very seriously and there are dire consequences for that — just as there would be for hazing or bullying.

“One of the challenges, from the school’s perspective, is that things often happen in very quiet, subtle ways that teachers don’t always hear or observe,” Warden said. “Students don’t make reports and make generalized statements about language or terms that they might hear in the hallway.”

Sometimes the reports come days later and can’t identify which students were involved.

“And that’s where we really need to take the universal approach, through education around hate speech and what is considered harassment, and why it’s not OK to make comments that are derogatory to a person because of their race or other part of their identity,” Warden said.

All of that being said, the above statement “caught me a little off-guard,” Warden acknowledged, “because since I have been here (July 2018 to the present) we have not had any complaints of antisemitic behavior. No one has reported to the administration to investigate. If they did, it would be investigated — thoroughly, just like any other acts of racism or hatred, or picking and teasing that leads to bullying — and we would put interventions in place.”

The school takes these kinds of behaviors very seriously, Warden said about the events of last week, (see story on Page 1A).

“Attacking people’s beliefs and even more so, attacking people for who they are and their identities — that’s a line that cannot be crossed here,” she said. “So there were consequences, and some ongoing consequences for students who engaged in that hateful, hurtful discourse.”

PERVASIVE

One of oldest Jewish advocacy organizations in the U.S., the American Jewish Committee (AJC), recently released the results of a survey that suggests antisemitism has been on the rise in recent years.

Among the top takeaways, according to the AJC:

  • One in four Jews in the U.S. experienced antisemitism in the past year.
  • Eight out of 10 American Jews believe hatred of Jews has increased over the past five years. “And neither age, political affiliation, nor level of religiosity makes much of a difference in who feels that way.”
  • “At a time when American public discourse has renewed its focus on hate, racism and xenophobia, AJC’s survey shows that U.S. adults were far less likely than American Jews to have heard about the wave of violent antisemitism (during the Israel-Hamas crisis in the spring of 2021).”
  • Approximately four out of every 10 American Jews have changed their behavior out of fear of antisemitism.

The survey results were released this past October on the third anniversary of the white supremacist terrorist mass shooting at the Tree of Life Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh, in which 11 people were killed and six were wounded.

HELP NEEDED

But fighting racism and other societal ills is not something the Mount Abe staff can do all by themselves, Warden said Wednesday.

She echoed that sentiment in a memo to school parents last Thursday night:

“FAMILIES! WE NEED YOUR HELP!” she wrote. “Please take the time to talk with your student(s) about how to have civil disagreements, show respect and empathy for others, not lean on social media to spread hurtful or hateful videos or pictures, demonstrate kindness every day, and other ways to build our school community up — not tear it down. If you need to, please check your students belongings before they get on the bus, or out of your car, to make sure they don’t have a flag or paraphernalia that has symbols of hate. One student wrote ‘I am ashamed of our school.’ This is so sad and together we can do better, I know we can, but we — our school faculty and staff, cannot do it alone, it is going to take a village.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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