June 1, 2006
O.C. Incidents Raise Anti-Semitism Fears
The president of a Los Alamitos high school's Jewish students' club came out to the school parking lot last October to find swastikas and "Jew Bitch" scrawled on her car. Across the county, a San Clemente high school student was harassed last year with anti-Jewish slurs to the point that she transferred out of the district.
These two instances in which Jewish students from Orange County were targeted by peers coincide with a broader rise in anti-Semitism, including in schools. Local Jewish groups have sounded an alarm, while the reaction of local school officials has varied.
"There has been a significant rise in the past four years in anti-Semitism generally and on school campuses," said Dr. Kevin O'Grady, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach Region. O'Grady's office recorded 43 cases of harassment and vandalism last year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2003; one-third of these involved public schools.
In its 2004 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the ADL documented 1,821 cases of harassment, threats, assault and vandalism against Jews nationwide -- up 17 percent from the previous year. This jump was due in part to a spike in reports of anti-Jewish harassment in American middle and high schools.
These incidents have included defacing lockers with swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, bullying and intimidation in hallways and Internet chat rooms. Incidents tend to be spread evenly throughout the county, although Los Alamitos and San Clemente have the most reported cases, according to ADL research. In the northwest corridor, skinheads, with their white supremacist ideology, are actively recruiting teenagers in schools, said ADL regional director Joyce Greenspan.
School administrators are responding to these incidents with varied intensity. In some cases, their actions have been resolute. One Costa Mesa middle school principal notified police and suspended 18 students after a girl was harassed on the Web site, My Space, O'Grady said. In San Clemente, a high school principal met with Jewish leaders following reports of several incidents, and ran tolerance programming for the student body, said Rabbi Mendel Slavin of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente, who attended the meeting.
At Los Alamitos High School, administrators banned clothing bearing an iron cross and other paraphernalia associated with white supremacy.
Districts have also adopted zero-tolerance policies for ethnic-based intimidation and offer sensitivity and diversity training programs to prevent problems before they arise.
"When you see that firm and clear response, you see a drop in anti-Semitic incidents," ADL's Greenspan said.
Other schools deny the presence of anti-Semitism on their campuses, even in the face of some evidence to the contrary.
Parents of a Tustin-area 10th-grader perceived the administration's response to be deficient after reporting that their daughter was being continuously harassed by a fellow student.
"He'd walk by and sneeze and say 'a Jew,' and say 'shalom' and laugh," said the 15-year-old girl, who asked to be identified only as K. "In class, I'd hear him talking and I'd hear the word 'Jew' and [my name] and I knew he was talking about me. He actually called me a 'kike' one time."
The boy described himself as a Nazi and would talk about how Jews killed Jesus, according to K., who said she felt scared and intimidated.
She reported the harassment to a counselor and was instructed to document the incidents in a statement to the vice principal. Because she was afraid to confront the boy and his parents in a face-to-face meeting, she was told that he could be disciplined only if caught in the act.
When the abuse continued, K.'s parents met with the vice principal, who allegedly said that he would direct teachers to send the boy to the office if he made offensive comments. Not all teachers followed this instruction, according to K. In the face of the boy's unrelenting taunting, the distraught parents removed their daughter from the school.
"What I'm most upset with are the teachers and the way they allowed it to happen, and the way that the vice principal, after receiving such a powerful statement from K., just did not respond," said K.'s mother. "I feel that they allowed it."
Tustin Unified School District officials denied knowledge of this incident, but stated that they do not tolerate racial or religious harassment.
"The safety and security of our campuses is our first priority," said Ron Heape, Tustin Unified's district administrator for child welfare and attendance. "We are not timid at all about going after these kids."
Peer-to-peer anti-Semitism is not limited to high schools.
"Our most recent phone calls have been third- and fourth-grade related," said the ADL's O'Grady. In one case, a fourth grader was called "dirty Jew" by two classmates, who then wrote the word "Jew" on a piece of paper, circled it and drew a line through it.
"This is what we do to Jews," Grady says they said.
ADL officials suspect that only a small percentage of incidents gets reported.
"The numbers are staggering," agreed Robyn Faintich, director of the Orange County Board of Jewish Education's (BJE) youth education program. Faintich recounted that at a recent gathering of 110 public school 10th graders, more than 90 percent said they had been targets of anti-Semitic comments, vandalism or other encounters.
"Schools are not mandated to collect data [on hate incidents] so there is no global perspective," said Georgiann Boyd, student services coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.
For that matter, many incidents never leave the school yard. Fear of being further ostracized prevents some students from reporting confrontations to school or community officials.
"We are aware that there is anti-Semitic activity in the schools," said Orange County Human Relations Executive Director Rusty Kennedy. "Each year we learn of at least a half-dozen incidents in schools that we're concerned with, and I'm sure there's more."
He said that while the number of cases is too small to indicate a trend, he believes that school-based anti-Semitism is comparable to hate acts in the adult community, in which Jews, African Americans and gays and lesbians are most frequently targeted.
"These things that are happening at an early age are concerning, because this is a taught or learned behavior," said Heather Williams, director of gang victim services at Community Service Programs, Inc. "These children are learning to be anti-Semitic by their parents and people who they've been around for a long time."