South Hills school’s personnel learn how to combat hate
Raising awarenessChildren should feel welcomed and appreciated in school

South Hills school’s personnel learn how to combat hate

Sponsored by ADL in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s CRC and the Chartiers Valley School District

Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.  (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

While Latino students may be dealing with the stress of living in mixed-status families — with some members having full U.S. citizenship, while other remain undocumented —refugees may be faced with other challenges, such as uneducated parents who cannot provide help with homework.

Raising awareness among educators and other community members in the South Hills was the focus of a panel discussion on “Incidents of Hate in School,” sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, and the Chartiers Valley School District on Aug. 17. The event, which had more than 40 participants, was held at the Chartiers Valley Intermediate School.

Representatives from seven minority organizations led a panel discussion on the challenges faced by their particular communities, and suggested ways that school officials could effectively deal with those issues.

Although the event was planned well in advance of the Charlottesville riots, said CRC director Josh Sayles, the incident in Charlottesville contributed to the relevance of the program.

“Suffice it to say, Jews know all too well what happens when white supremacists and Nazis congregate, whether it’s Charlottesville or elsewhere,” Sayles said. “We fully support the First Amendment. We don’t counter hate speech by shutting it down. We counter hate speech with more speech.

“And that’s why we’re here and we’re sharing our message,” he added. “People who hate a group of people don’t just hate one group of people. And that’s why it’s important for us to all be here … to bring our communities together and to get our message out.”

The panel discussion was intended to raise awareness of issues in minority communities of which educators may have limited knowledge or experience, according to Sayles.

Representatives were on hand from the Latino Community Center, the Union for African Communities, the Alliance for Police Accountability, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, the Persad Center, and Chartiers Valley Middle School. Sayles represented the Jewish community.

Rosamarie Cristello, cofounder and executive director of the Latino Community Center, discussed the issues facing students from “mixed-status families,” emphasizing the importance of terminology. She encouraged educators to refrain from referring to people as “illegal.”

“We strongly believe there is no such thing as an illegal person,” she said. “That is the wrong terminology.” More appropriate terminology, she suggested, is “undocumented” or “unauthorized.”

Since the 2016 presidential election, Cristello said, there is a “big fear of deportation” in the Latino community, with many Latinos living in Allegheny County afraid that when they leave for work, they may never see their children again. Others, who are in the country on visas, worry constantly about renewing those visas.

“The home environment is filled with stress,” Cristello said, adding that school should be a place where children can go to feel “welcome and appreciated.”

Stress is often prevalent in the homes of African refugees as well, said Benedict King, executive director of the Union for African Communities, an umbrella group of about 35 different African communities. Most Africans who have come to the United States as refugees “have encountered issues in schools,” he said, which include struggling to find help with homework because parents may be uneducated, and a lack of communication between parents and the school.

Additionally, many African children are assigned to English as a Second Language classes, even though they speak English, which causes frustration. Bullying, he said, is also a problem.

Challenges faced by African-American students who are not necessarily refugees include negative confrontations with law enforcement, according to Brandi Fisher, founder and executive director of the Alliance for Police Accountability. Too many times, she said, students get sent to the magistrate for school infractions that could better be handled internally.

“It’s a huge issue,” she said, imposing criminal records upon youth before they even graduate high school.
The presence of law enforcement at schools, rather than mental health professionals who could better deal with children coming from traumatic home situations, also can be problematic, Fisher said. Compounding the problem is the lack of quality advocacy groups that could provide guidance to parents wanting to advocate for their children.

Wasi Mohammed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, noted that hate crimes against Muslims had increased 68 percent last year, and that many such crimes are not reported. The tenor of current political rhetoric and negative portrayals of Muslims in the media lead people to believe that reporting such crimes would be useless, he said. “People don’t go to the authorities because of lack of trust. People don’t know where to go for help.”

Often, Mohammed said, the discrimination comes from people in positions of authority.

He encouraged people to make an effort to meet and get to know Muslims in the community, which could help counter some of the negative stereotypes, and to increase education in schools to highlight the contributions of Muslims to world history.

Jews have also been experiencing hate crimes at an alarming rate. Sayles explained that while Jews make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, they are the target of 60 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes.

Sayles also noted that anti-Semitism comes from both the right and the left, with the incident in Charlottesville providing an example of right-wing hate.

“Right-wing extremists don’t like people who don’t look like them,” Sayles said. “Left-wing extremists don’t like people who don’t think like them.”

Anti-Semitism is often disguised as anti-Israel rhetoric, Sayles said.

“A lot of extremists hide their anti-Semitism in anti-Israel rhetoric because it is more acceptable. Jews are often not welcome in far left social justice circles, and Jews of color are often overlooked, so they are forced to choose between the issues they care about.”

Although the Chartiers Valley School District is a No Place For Hate district — meaning that it works with the ADL on diversity training and inclusion programs — LaMont Lyons, assistant principal at Chartiers Valley Middle School, noted some recent disturbing incidents.

Two students gave each other the Nazi salute one morning during the Pledge of Allegiance, and a school bus driver harassed a student about deportation, believing the student was Mexican. Both incidents were handled “swiftly,” he said, adding that the practices learned through the No Place for Hate programming are being “embedded in our culture.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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