Graffiti threat puts Clayton High on alert

BY MIKE SHERWIN, MANAGING EDITOR

A recent racial and ethnic threat scrawled in a Clayton High School men’s restroom sent school officials and police preparing for the worst — although the following school day went without incident.

Clayton Police Chief Thomas Byrne said the graffiti — written in pencil — threatened violence against blacks and Jews on the next day of school, Friday.

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Louise Losos, the school’s principal, said the graffiti was reported late in the day on Thursday last week. The school notified a Clayton police liaison, who initiated an investigation, which Byrne said is ongoing.

“We all felt it was just graffiti, but the problem is you still have to take precautions,” Byrne said.

Thursday afternoon, Losos sent out an automated telephone message and an email to students’ parents, informing them of the threat and of the safety precautions the school would take, including boosting police presence at the school, and checking school IDs at the door.

Police checked the school before students arrived, and eight officers stayed at the school throughout the school day, according to Byrne. Faculty members also maintained a more vigilant presence, said Losos.

“It was a team effort with the Clayton police,” Losos said. “It went extremely well – the kids were positive and gracious, and the officers were fabulous.”

Losos said Clayton High School has 870 students, of which 23 percent are African American and roughly 25 to 30 percent are Jewish.

Losos said there was a higher than normal absence rate on Friday. “Some students stayed home out of fear, but you also have to factor in that it was a beautiful day,” she said.

Students expressed a general sense that the incident was likely a prank, or insensitive graffiti, but also a sense of disbelief that such an incident would occur in Clayton.

“I always thought that Clayton a huge shock for me,” said Nina Oberman, 16, a junior at the school. Oberman, who is Jewish, said she felt safe attending school on Friday, but she knows others who stayed home. “I have a friend who wears a yarmulke to school, and his parents wouldn’t let him go,” she said. “Quite a few people, especially Jewish and African American people stayed home.”

“I was studying at a friend’s house when she received the recorded call from the school. Her mouth just dropped, and I was totally confused as to what was going on,” said senior Hannah Novack, 18. “When she told me what the message said, I was in shock. Clayton was the last place I thought an incident like this would occur, especially because there is such a large combined black and Jewish population at our school, and it’s a very open and accepting place.”

Novack, who is Jewish, said the majority of her friends did attend school on Friday, and praised school officials for taking steps to ensure students’ safety.

“Dr. Losos, the teachers and faculty, and the Clayton police did a good job of making it a safe and relatively normal day,” she said. “From this incident, I think my classmates and I learned that it’s important to be mindful if we hear any threats whatsoever, to not brush them off, but to take them seriously and report them. The risk of not doing something far outweighs the risk of an empty threat.”

Junior Daniel Iken, 17, said he figured the threat was “just normal bathroom graffiti you find in many other places.”

“I did go to school on Friday,” he said. “I was mostly just curious what school was going to be like on Friday, because the message from the school sounded very serious.”

As co-President of the school’s Jewish Student Union, Iken also said he felt it was important for him to show up, although he noted that many others he spoke to either stayed home because they were scared, or because their parents did not want them to take a risk in attending.

Senior Fontasha Powell, 17, is an African American student at the school. She said that although she figured “it was just some idiot kid,” who left the graffiti, the police presence and the administrators did give her pause when she arrived at school on Friday to drop off her younger siblings.

“I thought, ‘this is actually happening,’ and I got kind of scared,” she said.

“It was so strange – Clayton is like the most liberal place,” Powell said. “I think my classmates should learn that every little thing, even if it’s just a prank, has a big effect on everyone.”

Principal Losos said by Monday the school would be back to normal. “Security is always something we review, but I don’t think graffiti in a boy’s bathroom is going to change our security procedures forever,” she said.

“I believe this is a safe school and our parents believe this is a safe school,” Losos added.

For Losos, the enduring change may simply be a focus on tolerance education, perhaps in concert with the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL’s “A World of Difference” Institute has been working with the Parkway School District following an October 2008 incident when an unofficial school spirit week at Parkway West Middle School turned from “Hug a Friend Day” to “Hit a Jew Day.” Several students were suspended as a result.

Karen Aroesty, director of the Missouri and Southern Illinois Chapter of the ADL, spoke with Losos and offered the services of the “World of Difference” Institute.

“If this was just a student writing graffiti, that kind of conduct shows a real lack of understanding of the impact this kind of behavior — a lack of sensitivity to how hurtful these kinds of actions can be,” Aroesty said. “Whether it’s with a pencil on a wall, or what we say in the Parkway school district with ‘Hit a Jew Day,’ we need to view these incidents as above all a teachable moment,” she added.