Amity ups security, calls in ADL to stem fear of anti-Semitic climate

Amity High School

Amity High School

Security was beefed up inside and outside of Amity High School Tuesday, Nov. 13, and the Anti-Defamation League was on campus to create an action plan for education against hate, following a powerful meeting before the school board Monday night in which weeping students expressed “horrifying fear” of an anti-Semitic climate at the school.

Meanwhile, a swastika was discovered drawn on a desk, but school officials aren’t sure whether it’s new or just newly discovered through stepped-up vigilance.

“It’s not a measure of the community that incidents like this happen,” said ADL Connecticut office Associate Director Andy Friedland, because it can happen anywhere. “The measure is how does the community respond?”

Amity officials went full throttle to diffuse the tensions Tuesday and address the problem of any kind of hate — anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia — as a long-term problem.

School administrators also on Tuesday increased their response — they were heavily criticized at the meeting for their reaction to anti-Semitic talk and symbols.

In a letter to the community Tuesday, Interim Superintendent of Schools James Connelly wrote that “hurtful” and “hateful” acts won’t be tolerated. The statement promises disciplinary action and possible police involvement for anyone engaging in such behavior.

The board and officials were “shocked and saddened” by the fears of the students and community, Connelly said in the email to the community.

Students Monday said they feared the climate inside the school and walking to their cars to possibly find destruction.

Kobi Spence, president of the school’s Diversity in Action group, reported from school Tuesday that students were generally “very emotional, tense, somber,” but they felt they were heard Monday at the board meeting and the school administration was giving them “great opportunity” to voice their feelings in scheduled lecture hall meetings. About 150 students attended a meeting of the group Tuesday after school, he said.

Like the other adults in the Board of Education meeting room Monday night, Connelly was moved by students who streamed to the lectern to speak, each ending with the refrain, “I do not feel safe here.”

“They were very compelling,” Connelly said. “It’s no longer a perception, it’s a reality. It really highlighted for everyone that this is taking place. It’s hard to believe this is happening in 2018.”

He said a swastika was found on a desk Tuesday, but it may have been there already, noticed now because, “We’re getting more vigilant. Everyone has to be more vigilant.”

Connelly said under the plan for change — which will be long term and substantive — the district will lead in partnering with the religious leaders, advocacy groups such as the ADL, state and federal officials, youth groups and “other people of good will.”

The most critical members of the partnership are students, families and staff, he said in the statement.

Judy Alperin, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation for Greater New Haven, who was also at the meeting, said Tuesday that while the ADL had the lead, she has offered any help her organization can add.

“I was incredibly proud of our teens and community last night,” Alperin said, noting she had tears streaming down her face like many others. “It was heart wrenching and emotional.”

Alperin said she was also moved by a Pakistani exchange student who spoke at the meeting and said he was called a “terrorist” in a phone call after joining the Amity community.

Numerous students said in recent days before the meeting, the phrase “We are the Nazis” was being tossed around the hallways. Students showed pictures of swastikas found on a boy’s bathroom stall and on a desk.

School officials are conducting an investigation, and so are police, Connelly said.

“We have had no anti-Semitic graffiti on any town buildings or residences,” Police Chief Frank Cappiello said in an email before the meeting.

“The Woodbridge Police Department is currently investigating acts of vandalism, which have occurred in the area during the recent past. These investigations are multijurisdictional and involve our law enforcement partners on the local, state and federal levels,” police said in an email later Tuesday that did not name Amity specifically. “As always, we remain in close contact and collaboration with school administration, with open lines of communication as we work together to ensure the safety of our students and the community as a whole.”

“We encourage anyone with safety concerns or suspicions to share them with school administration or the police without hesitation so that we can thoroughly investigate the information and make a determination and assessment as to its credibility. As these are ongoing investigations, we have no further comment at this time.”

Some Jewish families said their houses had been pummeled with eggs or vandalized in other ways and they reported it to police.

Students said the climate of anti-Semitism has been building.

Some of what students talked about Monday was confirmed as rumor, including that a swastika was found at High Plains Community Center in Orange. Police Chief Robert Gagne said the graffiti was of letters and male genitalia, and that juveniles were arrested.

Friedland of the ADL said swastikas are powerfully hurtful to Jews — and Jewish children are taught about it early — because they are the symbol of a Nazi regime that murdered six million Jews. He said he’s seen two responses to swastikas — those who think it’s not a big deal, only “Kids messing around” and those who envision white supremacists and violence.

He said two staff members from the ADL were at Amity Tuesday to form a program suited for the situation and to arrange training for teachers. He said the goal is to provide a safe, inclusive environment for students.

Friedland said the Pyramid of Hate starts with attitudes, goes to remarks, jokes, hateful rhetoric, discrimination, then violence.

One woman, who identified herself as a trained “Holocaust educator” at the meeting, said the happenings at Amity are step two on the “pyramid of hate.”

“We want to stop it at the bottom of the pyramid of hate,” Friedland said. “Left unchecked, that hate can grow into a big thing.”

Many of the students who spoke Monday said they knew the offenders — members of a sports team — but that little was done by school officials, as the offenders received a one-day suspension.

Connelly said he cannot comment on student discipline. There have been no arrests.

Many speakers also noted they were outraged by a memo sent to parents by the school regarding an investigation of rumors that was generically signed and contained the line: “We have found no evidence in the high school of wide-spread anti-Semitic behaviors.”

Amity Principal Anna Mahon turned that around quickly with a heartfelt letter to students Monday night signed with her name and those of other administrators. Mahon wrote in the letter to students that she was “deeply moved” by the public comments.

She offered for students to sign up for counseling. She said the long-term plan is to draft a two- to five-year action plan.

“We are committed to working together to make Amity a safe and supportive environment today, tomorrow and throughout the future,” she wrote.

What made the fear heighten many students said, is that the anti-Semitic hallway talk at Amity peaked around Friday, not long after the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Oct. 27 and just before Kristallnacht — or night of broken glass — on Nov. 9-10, considered the start of the Holocaust when the Nazis destroyed thousands of synagogues and businesses in Germany and Austria.

First Selectwoman Beth Heller said in a statement before Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting that “Hate will not find a home in Woodbridge.”

“I am heartbroken to hear their first-hand reports of a rise in such intolerant behavior,” she said. “At the same time I am very proud of these young people for speaking up.”