Bloomfield Hills High School looks at restorative methods to heal its culture.
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer
Since the start of the school year, the taunts about being Jewish among ninth-graders in Bloomfield Hills High School occur at such a frequent basis that no one thought to report them. This is how one Jewish student, who spoke to the Jewish News on condition of anonymity, sees it.
At least once a week, the ninth-grader said she and other Jewish peers are subjected to taunts allegedly made by a group of “popular” ninth-graders, such as “Hey, you are my second favorite Jew,” “Jews are stupid” or “I hate Jewish people.” The taunts are made just beyond earshot of a teacher or school staff person.
“They say things like this to me and other Jewish kids in class, and it’s happened so much we have become desensitized to it,” the student said. “No one does or says anything, and [the kids saying the hate speech against Jews] don’t care because there have been no consequences. Other Jewish kids and I do not feel comfortable because of the things they are saying, but, after we hear them say it, it’s just like … whatever. We just try to stay away from them.”
The student added she is aware that a group of ninth-graders who recently attended a house party composed a rap that included anti-Jewish slurs targeting one Jewish student, recorded it as a video on a cell phone and distributed it on Snapchat. She herself did not see the video.
The student’s mother said she believes the students should be suspended from school and both they and their parents should go through educational sensitivity training, including a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Farmington Hills.
“These students are targeting the Jewish kids, and no one wants to confront them,” she said.
News of this video prompted BHHS Principal Charlie Hollerith last week to release a district-wide email to notify families in the district that the matter happened and is being investigated as hate speech.
In the email, Hollerith stated:
“If you, or anyone you know, needs to talk to someone, please do not hesitate to connect with us. We have highly trained social and emotional support staff who can assist with questions or concerns you may have. Hate speech has a great impact on us all, even if it was not personally directed our way.”
In other incidents, other sources, including an involved parent who wants to remain anonymous, said this school year they had been shown by school staff several incidents of offending content that included a photo of a Jewish girl with an anti-Jewish slur — “Repping the Rich Jews” — captioned on her forehead.
Through a school staff member, the parent was shown a violent video clip from a movie depicting a person’s head being repeatedly smashed on a concrete curb by a heavy boot. Under the video clip ran a caption: “I wish I could do this to all the Jews.”
Bloomfield Hills Schools Director of Communications Shira Good said though she could not confirm the details of the offensive materials because the matter is under investigation and the students are minors, she did say the school administration is grateful for the outpouring of support and resources already provided by Anti-Defamation League officials as well as area rabbis who have all met with Hollerith in recent weeks and days.
“It is important to remain indivisible as we confront growing bigotry.”
— Rabbi Brent Gutmann
Good said the district brought the matter to the attention of the school police liaison, though Bloomfield Township Police officials said they are not actively conducting a formal investigation. Good added that administrators are following the district’s code of conduct rulings to determine what actions will be taken.
She said any time students feel they have been victims of bullying or hate speech, they can and should turn to any staff at school they have a trusted relationship with, to the principal or a hall monitor, who have all been trained in how to listen to the student and guide them to get the help and support they need.
“I hear all the time that people didn’t report a ‘first’ incident because they didn’t think it was a big deal; they thought it would not matter or that nothing would happen to change things,” said ADL Michigan Director Carolyn Normandin, “I want people to know it’s really important to stand up against hate and to report incidents anytime they occur. At the ADL, we track incidents and by doing that — by collecting information and by notifying the right people — we can help address an issue and, hopefully, effect change.
“It’s crucial to speak out because history teaches us when acts of bias are left unchecked, the result can lead to more acts of prejudice and discrimination, and even bias-motivated violence.”
Board of Education member-elect Lisa Efros said she is confident the school district is taking the acts of hate speech against Jewish students very seriously and is working hard to find the best way to help students and the community deal with anti-Semitism and all types of discrimination.
“We should be more forthright and public, considering the hate acts happening around the country,” Efros said. “Keeping things like this quiet is a dangerous thing.”
Looking at long-term solutions, school officials say the problem may stem from the fact that the ninth grade is comprised of the melding of three middle schools across a wide geographical area. Typically, there are more Jewish families living on the west side of the district and fewer living on the east side. In total, 1,800 students attend BHHS.
According to Good, the school seeks to mend the culture within the school with a new social science called Restorative Practice, which may also be used in lower middle school grades. In a school setting, restorative practices are rooted in restorative justice. They emphasize repairing the harm done to people and relationships, rather than punishment.
When dealing with incidents of hate or racism in a school setting, Good said that past tactics, such as holding large assemblies, have proven ineffective. She said instead the district will employ Restorative Practice, where small groups of students, including victims and their perpetrators with the guidance of a trained school staff member, look each other in the eye and have honest conversations.
Good added that such sessions occur after a student has served suspension time, if needed. A student must attend these sessions as part of his or her return to school.
“In these scenarios, students learn that their words and actions matter,” she said. “Many students cannot find individual strength in speaking up alone. They need facilitated conversations. With Restorative Practice, students feel like they have a voice and a seat at the table and this increases the chance of repairing relationships and repairing the culture in a school or community setting.”
Rabbis, ADL Weigh In
Rabbi Josh Bennett of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, who met with Hollerith last week, released a statement saying he was proud of the administration’s swift response to the anti-Semitic events and its continuing work with the ADL and clergy.
“They have supported the victims and now are working to re-establish the community to wholeness through a restorative process of healing,” he stated. “We will continue to work with the district to find ways to teach tolerance and to eradicate hate.”
Rabbi Brent Gutmann of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield also met with Hollerith, discussing such ideas as creating a freshman forum. He believes school administrators are in the right mindset to confront bigotry; he was asked to be available for consultations.
“It is important to remain indivisible as we confront growing bigotry,” Gutmann said. “[BHHS] brings together a diverse population from a large geographic area. This further necessitates the engineering of interactions between students of different ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. I’m pleased the school has followed the model of restorative practice in seeking to educate rather than punish offenders.”
Normandin gave Hollerith a “big thumbs up” for the way he is handling the situation by contacting the ADL for intervention even weeks before the latest incident was publicly reported.
Normandin said there has been an uptick in reports coming into her office from schools around the state.
“Hollerith took the right proactive approach,” Normandin said. “The ADL will be working with Bloomfield Hills High School staff, students and even parents and will be involved in helping the school incorporate and activate restorative practices to help turn this around. In cases like this, it’s not important to know every detail of the offending incident, but what is important is how schools react afterwards. Our education team is on it. I wish every principal in the state was as proactive as Mr. Hollerith.”