January 12, 2006
Lesson in Tolerance Seeks to Aid School
A group of students from Jefferson High School gathers around the tour guide, Jewish grandmother Diane Treister, at the Museum of Tolerance on a recent Friday morning.
While Treister talks about personal responsibility and respect, the students, many in jeans and T-shirts and carrying cellphones, chat among themselves, mostly in Spanish.
"This is going to be a tough group," Treister whispers to an adult visitor. "You just hope the kids will remember what they see today. I try to tell them to be ambassadors of tolerance and to speak up. Because the Holocaust happened because no one spoke up."
This tour is no typical high school field trip, with its predictable mix of unruly, disinterested teenagers. These students are here mainly because their school, Jefferson High, became a flash point last year for fights between Latino and African American students. The overcrowded, underperforming campus in South Los Angeles was 92 percent Latino, 7.5 percent black and, seemingly on a handful of occasions, nearly 100 percent out of control.
Since then, hundreds of students have transferred to a new school south of Jefferson, police have increased their campus presence and a new principal has taken charge. The school district also has arranged for human relations speakers to visit the campus.
Now, students are getting a special kind of training that officials hope will make a difference at school: They're learning about human rights abuses and the fight for civil rights in the United States and, especially, about the Holocaust.
Throughout November and December, ninth graders from Jefferson High and eighth graders from Carver Middle School, which feeds into Jefferson, spent a day at the Museum of Tolerance, the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
On this particular winter day, Treister leads the students into a room called the Millennium Machine, where they squeeze into six-person booths. Video monitors flash images of child abuse, including slavery, forced labor and pornography. The monitors ask, "What is the most common form of child abuse?"
The students overwhelmingly choose physical abuse. But they're wrong. The answer is forced labor.
"I think it's just sad," says a girl with long brown hair, as she makes her way out of the room for the next exhibit. Here, 16 video monitors show historical film footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others fighting for civil rights.
Then, it's time for the Holocaust section of the museum. Students sit on the floor, while Treister kneels, imploring them to pay special attention to this part of the tour. She explains anti-Semitism, using her own, expanded definition: "Anti-Semitism means hatred of Jews -- and hatred of anyone of color."
Two tall doors part, and the students walk into another room, where a reproduction of a Berlin street from the 1930s awaits. The ninth graders pass by a scene at a cafe, where sculpted figures sit at tables. A voiceover brings the scene to life, offering snippets of the cafe patrons' conversations about the Nazis' rise to power.
Less listless than before, the students eavesdrop on a recreation of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis determined that "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question" was to kill all Jews in German-controlled lands. In a Hall of Testimony that resembles a concentration camp gas chamber, students listen to survivors' stories.
Leaving the exhibit, Treister asks, "Who was responsible for this?"
"Hitler," a student says.
"Who else?" she asks.
"The people who followed Hitler," answers Jose Albarran, 14.
"What could've been done?" Treister asks.
Tames'e Smith, 15, raises her hand and says: "Somebody standing up to make a difference."
Smith seems to get the point of the tour. The question is how she, a girl who says she has grown weary of witnessing gang fights and parties "getting shot up," will apply what she's learned to life at school.
Ron Rubine, the 46-year-old head of Standing on Common Ground, an organization that trains students in peer relations, tried to make the connection.
"Today," he told the students at the start of the tour, "is going to be a day for you to think about making Jefferson a place where everybody's included and nobody's left out."
After the tour, Rubine led the ninth graders in a session on how to make the day's lessons relevant. He also brought in guest speakers -- a reformed white supremacist and a gay rights activist -- to broaden the message of tolerance.
"In terms of acceptance and learning more about how to get along," said Juan Flecha, Jefferson High's principal, "I can't think of a better opportunity" than a trip to the museum.
Flecha added that simply visiting the Westside was eye-opening. "It's really important for our students to see a different part of the world," he said.
With 30 buses provided by Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry (Ninth District) and free admission tickets offered by the Museum of Tolerance through a Wells Fargo Foundation grant, an estimated 1,000 students participated.
After this day's tour, ninth-grader Smith explains that "standing up" means stopping child pornography, "babies getting exposed on the Internet," as she puts it.
Another student, Mayra Rivas, 14, says, "I think it could happen again -- to Mexicans." Just as Jews could not escape Europe, her own grandmother, she says, cannot immigrate to the United States today.
A certain amount of confusion -- as with this questionable analogy -- is inevitable because many students arrive knowing little or nothing about the Holocaust, said Beverly LeMay, manager of the museum's Tools for Tolerance program. She added that she hopes to follow up with students.
As the day wore on, most students had paid attention to substantial parts of the presentation, sometimes participating in discussions with enthusiasm. If all went well, they will take away something of lasting value -- and Jefferson High will be a more peaceful, respectful place.
"You don't come to the Museum of Tolerance in one visit," LeMay said, "and be resolved on all these issues.