Months after media scrutiny, Parkway says lessons learned


No one dismissed the seriousness of the situation when a handful of sixth grade students at Parkway West Middle School declared “Hit a Jew Day ” as part of their own unofficial spirit week activities last October. A thorough investigation revealed the occurrence to be the result of immature behavior and poor choices on the part of 11-and-12- year-olds rather than a blatant act of anti-Semitism.

As such, the students, staff, school and district were astonished by the flood of attention focused on them from around the world after one parent contacted the local media about the incident.

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The school and district were inundated with phone calls requesting information and interviews. There were threats against the principal, the school and the district. Students wearing their Parkway West Middle School T-shirts were taunted at a local shopping mall.

“It strikes a deep chord,” said Parkway School District Director of Public Affairs Paul Tandy. “If someone just saw the headline, it was a very concerning issue, without knowing and understanding all the facts.”

Karen Aroesty, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) St. Louis, also felt the incident was more of a misunderstanding on the part of young kids rather than an act of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, one of the chilling effects of the media frenzy is some people are now fearful of the consequences of reporting acts of anti-Semitism and discrimination to the ADL, she said.

“The resulting media coverage has made others cautious about reporting incidents of anti-Semitism,” Aroesty said. “People say they don’t want the response [to their reporting an incident] to ‘become another Parkway.’ This is quite concerning because there is no question, things are happening.”

The ADL is taking the opportunity to use the Parkway incident as a teachable moment. Aroesty said she wants the public to know it is still important to report incidents and the agency does not go into situations with “guns blazing.”

“We go in as a resource, hoping to provide perspective, to say everything is going to be okay,” Aroesty said.

Tabari Coleman, Project Director for ADL’s A World of Difference Institute, was also shocked by the backlash caused by the media.

“It was an eye-for-an-eye mentality,” Coleman said. “It impacted everybody at the school.”

The public also seemed to forget the students involved were just 11- and-12-years-old, said Coleman.

“We do not dismiss what they did,” Coleman said. “It was hurtful to a lot of people, Jewish and non-Jewish. But it was not done maliciously.”

Coleman had already been having discussions and ongoing dialogues with the district before the incident occurred. He had been building a partnership with the district: learning about materials and curricula already in place and informing them of new materials available to help create a more inclusive environment in the schools.

“The district is in tune with the need to educate our students about social justice,” Parkway Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education, Desi Kirchhofer said. “Those lessons are woven into our daily curriculum.”

The lessons also need to be connected and relevant and not taught in isolation said Kirchhofer. The district was already working on ways to create additional opportunities to increase different kinds of awareness. Kirchhofer acknowledged the incident “accelerated” their agenda.

“This is what we are and what we do all the time,” Kirchhofer said. “We are providing an on-going movement for our school community to learn how they can be advocates and allies for one another.”

The incident also created a unique learning experience for the administration, Tandy said. The school and district were inundated with calls from media all over the world even as the administration was trying to conduct their investigation. The phones were “ringing off the hook,” Tandy said.

“The school wanted to respect those calls,” Tandy said. “They wanted to talk, listen, be open, get the job done, investigate the incident and get communication out to the school family.”

Unfortunately, the school and the district underestimated the havoc caused by the media attention and the time it would take away from the school’s ability to deal with the situation.

“We learned how to do a better job of that,” Tandy said. “We wanted to allow the school’s voice to be told. But when it becomes larger than life, we learned we need to help protect the school’s ability to do their job for their students and families: let the school do their job with respect to the incident and let us field the calls at the district level.”

Continuing to build on the partnership started earlier in the year, Coleman went to work with the teachers and staff. He said there was a “sense of sadness” in the school, with students and teachers disheartened about how they were being perceived.

“Students who weren’t involved were being confronted,” Coleman said. “They also learned that adults aren’t as forgiving as kids.”

The incident itself was not generated from hate, but the reaction to it was very hateful and ignorant, said Coleman.

“People were responding without knowing the facts,” Coleman said. “Think about the message that sends to young people.”

There doesn’t seem to be any question that there were many unexpected lessons learned this past school year.

The Holocaust unit regularly scheduled in the sixth grade took on a new meaning and understanding.

The sixth grade teachers also scheduled a two-day diversity workshop after the incident. Students participated in workshops exploring prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, cyber-bullying, being a bystander and being an ally.

At the end of the workshop students stood in formation to create a large number one outside the school. They were each proudly wearing a new T-shirt which had “Parkway West” with the team logo printed on the front and “Longhorns We Are One” on the back.

“Overall, the whole thing caused the sixth grade to become a more cohesive group,” Tandy said. “If there is one positive thing that came out of the incident, it is these kids are more keenly aware of the impact of their words and actions. It was a learning experience for the entire school.”