Birmingham Public Schools works to raise awareness, sensitivity after incidents

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Birmingham Derby Middle School

When anti-Semitic graffiti and other forms of hate speech were discovered in various places at Derby Middle School in Birmingham, including a classroom, parents, students and school administrators did not respond with more hatred. Instead, they used the incidents as an opportunity to spread awareness, tolerance and kindness throughout the school community.

At the beginning of February, parents were alerted via emails from the Derby administration that anti-Semitic messages had been found on posters, restroom walls and student artwork. The damage included destruction of a musical instrument as well as a vandalized locker that had been decorated with Chanukah gift wrap for a student’s birthday.

One student reports seeing the words: “Jews are evil. Jews are nasty. Jews do not belong to live here [sic]” written on the paper in green marker; and Marcia Wilkinson, director of Community and Family Engagement for Birmingham Public Schools, said the vandalism included a swastika and other racial slurs.

Administrators believe the destruction was perpetrated by non-Derby students who infiltrated the building after hours. Another incident involved a Derby student who arranged a series of  “math manipulatives,” objects of assorted shapes and sizes used to teach math concepts, to form the words “Heil Hitler” and a swastika.

Barbara Stalburg Kasoff

When the school district did not take immediate action, parents such as Barbara Stalburg Kasoff became outraged about the incidents and frustrated that the school district was not responding quickly enough.

“Our house is on fire,” said Stalburg Kasoff, who has two children, Brooke Bell and Drew Bell, in the Birmingham school district. “This is an emergency. Enough is enough. How many burning crosses would you need until you would do something? A swastika is the same.”

Stalburg Kasoff attended a school board meeting to voice her concerns. Another Derby parent, Nessa Feller, met with Derby Middle School principal Celeste Nowacki to express her dismay and offer to help with solutions.

“I think we had to light a fire and let them know how offensive a swastika is,” Feller said. “We trust the school to take care of our children, not just teach them academics. Our trust was starting to be questioned — we are all committed to making sure our schools and our society in general are more tolerant places.”

Shortly after the board meeting, a parent meeting was held with Heidi Budaj, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League-Michigan Region, serving as facilitator. About 60 parents of various nationalities and religious and cultural backgrounds attended, in addition to Derby administrators and staff members.

Heidi Budaj

“Celeste [Nowacki] was shocked that this happened at her school,” said Budaj, who had been working pro-actively with Birmingham school administrators prior to these incidents. “They [Birmingham Schools] want to have a culture of diversity and embracing differences … Birmingham sets a fabulous example for other districts.”

Budaj said that while what happened in Birmingham appeared to be isolated incidents, this type of behavior has become more common throughout Michigan.

“In years past, we would get calls three or four times a year from parents,” Budaj said. “Now I get a complaint on an average of once a day. It is bad out there.

“Swastikas carved into desks, spray painted, kids saying horrible things on buses like Jews should go back to Auschwitz … and it’s not just happening in school. We’re seeing things going on in public that a year ago we thought we would never see in public … disparaging remarks aimed at people in hijabs…”

Taking Action

Since the incidents occurred, the district has been developing programs for the various schools and grade levels to address the issues, according to Birmingham Public Schools superintendent Dr. Daniel Nerad, including a learning process for the staff.

Nessa and Bob Feller

At Seaholm High School, where there was a racial incident earlier in the school year, there will be an emphasis on respectful dialogue, with staff members guiding students to engage in civil discourse and inclusive conversations.

“A concern I have is that adults have a responsibility to model civil discourse, but much of what our young people have been hearing is not civil discourse; it’s been very blaming,” Nerad said. “As adults, we need to create a safety net for our children. We need to be good listeners when they come home.”

Nerad urges families to discuss together how kids’ behavior needs to be safe for everyone.

“When you go to school, don’t say hateful things. Much of this is what we learn in kindergarten — get along, solve problems, compromise — those are the messages we need to convey to our young people,” Nerad says.

Regarding the action taken by the school district about the anti-Semitic incidents, Nerad believes it is important to utilize a dual strategy that includes an investigation and appropriate student discipline followed by an educational component.

Drew and Brooke Bell

He said disciplinary action for the student who used the math manipulatives to create anti-Semitic messages is in process but declined to discuss the specific details. The investigation into the defamation of the locker and destruction of the musical instrument is ongoing; the culprits are believed to be former Derby students who have not yet been apprehended.

“These types of matters need to be taken very seriously, as I shared with the parents,” he said. “We need to use each incident as a teaching and learning opportunity for inclusivity, tolerance, respect and cultural diversity.”

‘Shining Light’

The first official program at Derby was a “Shining Light” assembly for each grade, led by Rabbi Tamara Kolton, who is also the parent of Maya, a sixth-grader at Derby, and Lior, a junior at Seaholm.

Tamara Kolton

Kolton, who strongly believes the negative incidents should be used as an opportunity to foster greater kindness and understanding, started the program by darkening the gymnasium and lighting a single candle to symbolize how one person has the power to bring light to a dark situation. Her talk centered on becoming an “ally,” who connects through friendship; an “advocate,” who gives public support; or an “activist,” who campaigns for change. Kolton told the students they could choose any of the three options, but they could not stay silent.

“Silence is compliance,” said Kolton. “Nobody could have done what Hitler did unless people remained silent.”

When Kolton asked those who had experienced unkind behavior to raise their hands, a number of students responded. After meeting in small groups, students signed a pledge vowing to be actively involved in spreading goodwill. One of the exercises involved a “kindness chain,” where each student said something nice to another classmate, who in turn passed on the compliment.

“They made it a safe place where the kids could really share their feelings,” Stalburg Kasoff said.

“It was helpful to all the students, not just the Jewish ones,” said Drew Bell, a seventh-grader at Derby and the son of Stalburg Kasoff. “We talked about hate being wrong, no matter who it’s aimed at.”

Kolton based her presentation on information from the ADL “No Place for Hate” program with some added embellishments of her own. She was thrilled at how eager the students were to participate; many sent heartfelt letters after the program expressing how worthwhile it had been.

“It was reassuring and exhilarating. We make ourselves better for having had this [the anti-Semitic incidents] happen,” said Kolton, who praised the school administration for their response and willingness to undertake creative programming.

Alexis Kufta and Maya Kolton

Kolton’s daughter, Maya, was one of the first students to notice an anti-Semitic message on a classmate’s locker and bring it to the administration’s attention.

“I was really mad about it,” said Maya, who shared she had been bullied earlier in the school year.

Maya and her friend, Alexis Kufta, a Derby seventh-grader, thought the Shining Light presentation had a positive impact on the school.

“People confronted stuff [during the assembly] they don’t usually talk about,” said Kufta, describing how one student discussed the recent death of a parent and another shared the challenges of living with an eating disorder.

After the program, students discussed what they had learned with their teachers.

“It definitely hit some people. They realized how their meanness affected people,” Maya said. “Teachers shared things about their own lives. People felt open that week.”

At a recent school board meeting, Nerad presented a new district-wide Diversity and Equity Policy that includes ongoing programs for students at all grade levels continuing into the 2017-18 school year and beyond.

A recent panel discussion, which was open to all members of the community, included representatives from a variety of religions and cultures. Kolton is also meeting with Nerad to plan programs similar to the Shining Light presentation at other schools in the Birmingham district.

“These are kids, and they need to be peer-educated,” Kolton said. “We don’t want to under-react or over-react.”

While they had hoped for a faster response, parents such as Stalburg Kasoff and Feller are pleased with the school administration’s cooperation and concern in stemming bigotry toward Jews and other minority groups and using the unfortunate incidents as teaching opportunities.

“I give the school credit for being responsive,” Feller said. “We’re all going to have to deal with this long-term, unfortunately. It’s important to build skills so parents and children can deal with these situations in the future.”

Although Budaj acknowledges the recent rise in anti-Semitism, she believes school-based programs can have a tremendous impact on creating a kinder, more tolerant community.

“We should not be completely hopeless,” Budaj said. “What ADL does that I’m most proud of is we really do change hearts and minds in schools … we offer an alternate path and help them create pride in their school as an embracing, safe place, and they’ll start to self-police. We see an enormous difference in schools where our educational programs are used.”

Ronelle Grier Contributing Writer

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