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JewishJournal.com

May 3, 2011

After anti-semitic vandalism, life goes on at Calabasas High

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/after_anti-semitic_vandalism_life_goes_on_at_calabasas_high_20110429

Photos by Jonah Lowenfeld

Photos by Jonah Lowenfeld

Read more on this story here.

On April 27, just hours after three Calabasas High School students had been arrested in connection with the anti-Semitic and racist graffiti scrawled on their school’s campus late on the night of April 22, life at this well-groomed, suburban public school seemed to be back to almost normal.

When school employees arrived in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 23, they found the paved walkway between the 11th-graders’ parking lot and the school campus covered with swastikas, along with various other walls and lockers. But by nightfall that same day, the only evidence that remained was a few spots of faded concrete.

On April 26, three male 11th-graders, who have been described as “4.0 students,” confessed the vandalism to investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Their names have not been released because they are minors. After their arrests, the three were released into their parents’ custody.

A spokesman said that the Sheriff’s Department will push for hate crime enhancements in addition to felony vandalism charges against the alleged vandals, which are expected to be filed shortly, once the investigation is completed.

Local news outlets have devoted significant coverage to the incident. A TV news van sat parked in front of the school for much of the afternoon on April 27, right beside the site of the school’s new $18 million performing arts center, which is expected to be completed by next year.

But while some on campus expressed anger at the students believed to be behind the graffiti, by the afternoon of April 27, a calm atmosphere prevailed at Calabasas High School. For every angry student or parent, Jewish or otherwise, there seemed to be equal numbers who seemed unfazed.

Alan Bell, a Jewish father of an 11th-grader, sat in his pickup truck, waiting in the carpool line. “I think she was concerned, but I don’t think she was bothered,” Bell said of his daughter.

“This has happened before,” Bell added, referring to a January 2010 incident when a Jewish student at Calabasas High School found a swastika carved into the hood of his car. Nobody was found in connection with that case.

“As a student body, we’ve really come closer together,” Josh Levin, an 11th-grader who was recently elected student body president, said of the aftermath of the vandalism.

“There was a point when students were very angry,” Levin said. “There were petitions online to have physical retribution and things like that, but there were a bunch of student leaders who said this isn’t a good idea. It’s not good to fight violence with violence.”

Alan Levy, a Jewish 11th-grader, seemed more surprised than distressed. “It’s pretty ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody would do this.”

The “why” question remains mostly unanswered.

Principal C.J. Foss said that the students who vandalized their school were angrier with the school in general than they were at members of one specific ethnic or religious group. “They felt like they had been mistreated, that they had been insulted, and they wanted to hurt back the school,” she said.

The graffiti included racist remarks against blacks and Latinos, and swastikas, which are often considered to be equal-opportunity offenders. Nevertheless, the scrawlings — which included the names of four Jewish students in the 11th grade as well as the names of two 11th-grade teachers — appeared to have been particularly anti-Semitic.

Foss said that was due to Calabasas High School’s large Jewish population. Estimating that at least 60 percent of the school’s students are Jewish, Foss said that the alleged vandals focused their anger on “high-profile” Jewish students.

“One of them said he didn’t even know one of the boys” whose name was included in the graffiti, Foss said, “but he knew that he was the president of the Jewish club. And if the perception of the school is that this is a Jewish school, and you want to hurt them, I think that’s why they chose the Nazi flag and those symbols.”

Members of the media, law enforcement and school administration have said nothing publicly about the three 11th-graders. But on April 27, rumors were circulating among the students at Calabasas High about which of their classmates had confessed to the vandalism.

“My kids are saying that by next week we’ll know who they are, because we’ll know who isn’t showing up,” Sheri Salimi, the mother of two Calabasas High School students, said.

According to a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, when the three alleged vandals confessed, they told investigators that the students whose names they had scrawled across the walkway had been “picking on” them throughout the school year.

But those who knew the students whose names were mentioned in the graffiti didn’t believe that was the case.

“I know many of the kids personally, and to say that they were really harassing other students or things like that would be the biggest shocker in my mind,” Levin said.

Levin was sitting in the outdoor lunch area at Calabasas High School on April 27, taking a short break from his late-afternoon class in broadcast media. Behind him, a dozen girls on the school’s dance team huddled around a picnic table eating a pizza, laughing.

“There’s going to be a high school bully anywhere you go,” Levin said. “I guarantee you, all the students named on that list are not the typical high school bully.”

Principal Foss sees this as a reminder of how important engaging students on the fringes can be. “We all spend a lot of time on the campus,” she said, “and I purposely try to go up to the kid that’s sitting by himself, engage him in a conversation. It’s something I’m very concerned about and spend a lot of time with.”

Considering how some disaffected students at other schools have expressed their frustration in recent years, Foss said she has thought that Calabasas got lucky in at least one way: The students used cans of spray paint instead of guns to send their hate-filled messages.

“It has occurred to me,” Foss said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “And I have heard that comment from students.”

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