Band of mothers battle anti-Semitism in metro Atlanta schools

7:00 a.m. Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 Education
Vanessa McCray
Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism founding partners Danielle Cohen, left, Lauren Menis, and Lisa Freedman organized an upcoming conference to help educators combat anti-Semitism and hatred in schools, incidents of which are on the rise according to a new Anti-Defamation League report.

The moms were fed up.

A rash of bomb threats, cemetery desecrations and hostility aimed at Jews prompted a group of local mothers to launch the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism earlier this year.

Next week, they’ll turn their attention to education. The group will host a conference for about 250 participants focused on schools, where the Anti-Defamation League reports anti-Semitic incidents such as bullying and vandalism have more than doubled since 2015.

The league on Thursday released nationwide statistics showing 269 K-12 school-based incidents in the first nine months of this year, up from 119 in all of 2015.

Metro Atlanta’s private and public schools have not been immune to the problem.

“Hardly a day goes by when we don’t get an email or a call or someone tells us about an instance in the schools,” said Lauren Menis, who co-founded the initiative with other mothers of private Jewish school students. “Parents are isolated. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to go. Sometimes they’re not happy with the school’s response.”

In recent months, swastikas have been discovered on everything from a Gwinnett high school football field to a flower pot in an Atlanta elementary classroom.

An off-campus game of beer pong featuring Nazi and Jewish symbols led to discipline for Lovett School students. And critics said a Snellville middle school teacher’s homework assignment to draw a Nazi mascot trivialized the Holocaust.

Allison Padilla-Goodman, the ADL’s Southeast regional director based in Atlanta, said the league compiles its numbers from reports made to and evaluated by its staffers. She said the problem is likely bigger than the numbers show.

A group of white nationalists gathered in Tennessee in October, and a Charlottesville rally erupted into violence in August.

“Jewish people are being threatened. They are being harassed at significantly increased numbers and in schools,” she said. “We’re seeing extremist ideologies and followers of extremist ideology being emboldened. They are feeling like now is their time, and there is much more public interest in their ideology.”

To combat the troubling trend, the anti-Semitism initiative is hosting a Wednesday conference in Sandy Springs aimed at eliminating all forms of hate in schools.

Counselors, administrators, and educators from Atlanta, Gwinnett, Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, and Marietta school districts will attend, as well as leaders of faith-based and community organizations.

The event aims to provide training and resources to prevent harassment as well as suggest ways to intervene and respond when schools encounter hateful speech and symbols. Teachers will get advice on how to educate students about the Holocaust.

Harassment and bullying don’t just take place at school, but also at the bus stop, by text, and at off-campus gatherings, organizers said.

But schools have an opportunity to expose children to diversity and help them understand the gravity of their behavior, said Danielle Cohen, another initiative co-founder.

“It really came back to the schools and the responsibility that they have in not just molding the children for tests and for textbook material but really into well-rounded, empathetic, accepting individuals,” she said.

North Springs Charter High School principal Scott Hanson will be one of the presenters at the conference. He’ll draw from his experience leading the 1,600-student Fulton County school, where last year — his first as principal — he dealt with a couple of anti-Semitic incidents.

The one that made headlines was a Hitler-themed Valentine’s Day card that circulated among students on social media.

Hanson brought in anti-bias trainers from the local ADL office to provide a series of school assemblies. Teachers also went through a training program.

He said the school wanted to take an active part in changing attitudes.

“In times that we live in people have emboldened to say things that they normally wouldn’t say, and the school is a microcosm of the community,” he said.

His mother said she has tried to get help for son who is being bullied.