Community voices support for school’s response


The tremendous media attention to the “Hit A Jew Day” incident at Parkway West Middle School has created as much harm as the incident itself, according to many students’ parents and staff at the school.

At a Parkway Board of Education meeting last week, many of the 150 people present were there because of the recent events at Parkway West Middle School.

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Five sixth graders were suspended for their involvement in unofficial Spirit-Week-type activities which ended in “Hit A Tall Person Day” and “Hit A Jew Day.” The incident has been reported on television stations and in newspapers around the world.

School Board President Dee Mogerman opened the meeting acknowledging the reason for the large attendance.

“I imagine many of you may be here this evening because of last week’s incident at Parkway West Middle school,” Mogerman said. “The entire Parkway School Board has been saddened and angered by this incident.”

Twenty-eight people had signed up to speak for the citizen comment section. Many of the speakers reaffirmed the good things going on in the school and encouraged the community to let the school and district to continue their investigation and concentrate on educating the children.

One middle school parent, who asked not to be identified, said the entire school community is feeling some backlash due to the media attention. Reportedly, some students wearing school shirts said they were taunted in a local shopping mall.

All but two of the speakers at the Parkway meeting expressed their approval of the school’s handling of the incident.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew spoke at the meeting in support of the response of the school and the district.

“Parkway West Middle School and the School District are responding appropriately,” Rosenberg said. “We need to step back and allow them the time to do their job. Let’s move forward, not forgetting or glossing over the incident, but allowing time to learn and begin to heal.”

Rosenberg also read a statement from Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth, who was unable to attend the meeting. He also supports the school, administration and board to respond appropriately to the matter, according to the statement. He called on parents to remain calm and remember “the manner in which they respond sets an example for the children.”

Sheryl Silverberg, a parent of one of the Jewish sixth grade students at Parkway West Middle School, said her child was “more upset by the words” than the physical nature of the incident. She said she was pleased with the response of Parkway West Principal Linda Lelonek, who began dealing with the incident immediately by addressing the students at an assembly.

“At that assembly she taught the students about tolerance and prejudice, using their own behaviors as the lesson,” Silverberg said.

Silverberg said the school’s teachers and staff honor all voices at the school and she has seen the distress caused by some adults in the community who are “setting a bad example.”

She addressed parents who do not have students in the school.

“You do not speak for me or for the majority of families involved,” Silverberg said.

Parkway West Middle School parent Gary Shank read the Jewish Community Relations Council statement about the incident into the record. He also spoke about the effects of the negative publicity.

“This media attention is unnecessary,” Shank said. “There is destructive dialogue by a small minority; there is no place for inflaming talk or looking for blood.”

Mason Ridge parent Edward Weinhaus presented a petition which had gathered over 200 online signatures asking for a “full and independent investigation” of the incident. The petition acknowledged the students involved would be disciplined, but also asked, “has anyone in a position of responsibility actually taken responsibility and offered their resignation?”

State Representative Jane Cunningham also spoke on behalf of the petitioners.

Parkway West Middle School PTO co-president Julie Burns spoke on behalf of the organization, which expressed concern and regret for the incident. She called for peace and a stop to the media sensationalism.

“The ongoing negative publicity is taking time from learning,” Burns said.

Everyone is being affected by the incident, said seventh grade student Lauren Gieseking.

“It’s not fair that everyone is on the front page of the newspaper and on the news,” Gieseking said. “It’s not fair to blame the principal.”

One parent, who asked not to be identified, said most people don’t feel anger towards the students who created the controversy.

“They are good kids who made bad judgments,” the parent said. “They just need to be taught.”

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) St. Louis Regional Director Karen Aroesty has already met with Parkway West Middle School principal Linda Lelonek on the Friday after the incident. She suggested educational programs appropriate to the situation.

“The school is working to determine how they will fit some of the suggested lessons into their curriculum, while still meeting standards and requirements set by the state,” Aroesty said.

The school has also already been in touch with the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and is slated to receive an Education Trunk funded by The Staenberg Family Foundation, to tour the museum in the spring and to hear from a Holocaust survivor.

“When I heard about the incident I immediately called Principal Lelonek,” said Museum Director Jean Cavender. “She couldn’t have been more receptive and grateful for the support and assistance offered by the museum.”

The St. Louis Jewish community congregations, organizations and agencies are responding to the incident according to the needs of their constituencies. The Sunday after the incident Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg started discussions with the sixth – 10th grade students at United Hebrew Congregation.

Last Tuesday, parents and fifth through eighth grade students from Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS) and the religious schools of Shaare Shalom and Congregation B’nai Amoona came together for “Dare to Be Different: Standing Up Against Discrimination.”

“It involved collaboration with the Federation, the ADL, JCRC, and the lead educators at Shaare Shalom and B’nai Amoona,” Rabbi Allen Selis wrote in a note to parents.

More than 100 students and more than 45 parents representing all three schools explored the discrimination experience faced by many groups in America. They learned about the history of anti-Semitism and how to empower themselves when faced with discrimination. There were programs for the parents and students together as well as small group experiences.

“There was a phenomenal response,” SSDS Director of Development Susan Levko said. “Everyone was overwhelmingly positive response and grateful for the program.”