Middle school incident takes center stage

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The whole thing started innocently enough.

A small group of sixth graders at Parkway West Middle School decided to have their own unofficial Spirit-Week-type activities. They started with “Hug A Friend Day” and then had a “High Five Day.” The next day’s activity, “Hit A Tall Person Day,” did not reflect the same fun spirit of the previous two days. And on Monday, Oct. 20, the little group declared it “Hit A Jew Day.”

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School officials did not know about any of the activities until later that night. None of the students had come forward during the school day to alert teachers or the administration of the events said Paul Tandy, Parkway School District Director of Public Affairs.

“The incident flew under the radar because no student came forward,” Tandy said. “And it was happening in the hall between classes.”

The school estimates that roughly 35 of the school’s 850 students are Jewish.

Students later told school officials most of the “hitting” consisted of mainly light taps and raps. One student said he didn’t take it seriously and thought they were kidding. However, one student reported being slapped. Tandy said that student was very reluctant to reveal who slapped him because they are friends.

The school responded immediately on Tuesday morning after learning about the incident, said school and district officials. School principal Linda Lelonek had an assembly for all the sixth-grade students. Most of the students raised their hands when she asked them if they knew about the “Hug A Friend Day” and the “High Five Day.” It was also clear from the show of hands a majority of students had known about the “Hit A Tall Person Day” and “Hit A Jew Day.”

“Linda told the students she was hurt and saddened that they knew about the incident and no one came to her or told a teacher about it — they watched and did nothing,” Tandy said. “She read them the poem from the Holocaust by Pastor Martin Niem öller which addresses the issue of bystanders.”

The school has a Holocaust curriculum which is part of their language arts program, said teacher Andrea Hagle. She is a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth and has taught at the school for 14 years.

“We don’t just talk about the Holocaust as a Jewish theme,” Hagle said. “We have lots of age-appropriate activities examining the lessons of the Holocaust including: bystanders, perpetrators and prejudice. We also take a tour of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.”

The school’s principal had the entire faculty speak to all grade levels during classes as a first step to raise awareness.

“We talked with students about being bystanders,” Hagle said. “If you knew and didn’t tell, that is just as bad as the problem. We know it is hard for students to go against their peer group but they need to know they can come to us and trust us.”

Hagle said she has always felt respected at the school. She said it has a very diverse population where students and their families have always gone out of their way to be welcoming, respectful and polite. The students are also feeling really bad about the situation because of how it makes the school look, said Hagle.

She said she thinks some of the students might have gotten some of their spirit week ideas off the Internet. There is a “Hug a Jew Day” declared by a Jewish person on Facebook. Hagle said the group may have just given it a sixth-grade twist by suggesting hitting — but not really meaning “hitting” with malice or to cause injury.

“I don’t believe the motivation was racial or anti-Semitic,” Hagle said. “It was just immature behavior and poor choices on the part of a small group of sixth graders.”

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) St. Louis Regional Director Karen Aroesty agrees it is important to keep in mind the students involved are sixth graders.

“With one foot they are still kids and with the other foot they are just starting on the path to adulthood,” Aroesty said. “The incident is unfortunate, but it is important then to use it as a teachable moment.”

Aroesty met with Lelonek on Friday to discuss the situation and make some suggestions on how the school can move forward.

“Solutions have to be structured, I have no patience with band-aids,” Aroesty said. “It needs to be a series of programs held throughout the year and include parents and teachers.”

She said she planned to encourage the school to sign up as a No Place for Hate school. The ADL interactive program involves a variety of activities and commitments on the part of the school to fight “intolerance, bullying and hatred, leading to long-term solutions to these problems in schools.” She also spoke about the importance of creating allies in the school using the A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE Institute program “Becoming An Ally: Interrupting Name Calling and Bullying.”

In a press release, Aroesty reported the ADL has seen an increase in “anti-Semitic bias incidents,” though she believes this particular case is more likely a result of immaturity than anti-Semitism.

Lelonek sent a letter home to middle school parents on Oct. 22 that did not address the offending incidents directly. The letter said “some students were singled out because of their differences.” This was a difficult, but deliberate decision on Lelonek’s part to leave out those specific details, said Tandy.

“Linda’s feeling was the investigation was still ongoing and she had been getting conflicting reports there might have been other targets, singling people out because of a perceived difference,” Tandy said. “She didn’t know if they were going to uncover any other inappropriate activities which may have been planned. Also, we know at the very least, tall people had also been singled out — which was also not appropriate.”

One Parkway West Middle School parent, who asked not to be identified, first found out about the situation from the media reports. He has talked to a lot of other parents, teachers and the administration since the incident. He feels strongly Lelonek has been handling the situation appropriately since it was brought to her attention.

“From my conversations with people in the Jewish and non-Jewish community, there are many of us who feel the media involvement has overblown the situation,” the parent said. “We are not diminishing the incident, just the media frenzy that has followed it.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) convened a meeting on Friday to discuss the situation with community leaders, including representatives of the rabbinic and educational community. JCRC Executive Director Batya Abramson-Goldstein said it was a wonderful meeting, as the group considered a caring and constructive approach to the incident.

“It happened and it needs to be dealt with,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “The school, the administration and the school system were very appropriate in their response. We also need to make sure our community gets information in an appropriate way, not by rumors.”

The incident points to the importance of the need to teach diversity and respect for all, said Abramson-Goldstein.

“We need to respond not only when it’s our ox being gored, so to speak,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “We need to also respond when other groups are not treated with respect.”

The group decided the most appropriate, effective response would come from institutions in the Jewish community. Each congregation, organization and school involved in the meeting is developing a response appropriate for their constituents.

One of the positive things to come of the situation will be to open the lines of community interaction and communication, according to Abramson-Goldstein.

“The Parkway School system is enthusiastic about it,” she said. “Communications already exist, but we will be enhancing it which will help us to develop best ways to cooperate.”

Parkway School Superintendent Robert Malito shared his “sadness and a sense of outrage” in an open letter to the over 20,000 recipients on the Parkway School District e-mail list. He reviewed the timeline of events and the school and district response thus far. Though the investigation is still ongoing, Malito reported five students have already been suspended and will “likely face additional consequences.”

The district has already received many responses to the letter, said Tandy.

“The vast majority echoed the sadness and disappointment of Dr. Malito,” Tandy said. “By and large, people want to learn from it and move forward in a positive way.”

The incident, which has received extensive media attention nationally and even internationally, has become a hot topic in the St. Louis Jewish community, with many congregations and schools planning programs and discussions.

On Sunday, United Hebrew Congregation had a discussion with their 6th – 10th grade students.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg told the students they wanted to talk about what happened, not just about the incident specifically, but why it has become such a big deal in the Jewish community.

Rosenberg showed a clip from the film Borat to illustrate what happens when something ceases to be a joke.

“As Jews, we make fun of ourselves all the time,” Rosenberg said. “When does it cease to be a joke and is no longer funny?”

Students commented on letting their friends tell “Jew jokes” and not responding to them. They also compared it to hearing blondes tell “dumb blonde” jokes.

“It is important not to get hung up on the hitting piece,” United Hebrew Director of Education Cheryl Whatley said. “It would have also been wrong if it was hug a Jew day. It still would have been singling people out for who they are.”

Some of the adults commented that it is offensive when people talk about Jews, but it is also offensive when people talk about other groups. They said it is important to let people know you don’t appreciate the joke and stop laughing at them.

While the students felt bad about the situation, several of them felt the media had blown the incident out of proportion.

One teacher, who did not wish to be identified, said he felt differently and explained his feelings to the students. He talked about the Depression after World War I when Nazis said the Jews controlled the money and were to blame for the economic crisis. Then he compared it to today’s economy and his concern that those stereotypes have not disappeared.

“Jews must be forever vigilant and watch for signs to make sure it never happens again,” the teacher said. “We must stop it at the roots.”

Rosenberg said as parents have heard about the situation, they are talking about other incidents of intolerance at other schools and in other venues. She said she has heard from several parents about coaches penalizing kids because of missing practices for Jewish holidays or other religious commitments.

Sometimes children ask their parents not to call the school because they don’t want to get anyone in trouble or call attention to themselves, she said.

“You need to tell someone,” Rosenberg said. “We won’t single you out or get anyone into trouble, but we will help you maneuver your way through the situation to help solve the problem. We all know how hard that is, but if we don’t know there is a problem, we can’t help.”