Upper St. Clair school district sees recent anti-Semitism spike
While Upper St. Clair school district administrators have been addressing some recent incidents of anti-Semitic activity within their schools, some parents believe that not enough is being done to tackle the problem.
Although there has not been a plethora of such incidents in Upper St. Clair, a few weeks ago, at Fort Couch Middle School, a student broke into the locker of a Jewish eighth-grader, drew swastikas inside, and stole some of the locker’s contents.
The school failed to contact the parents of the victim to report the incident, although it did conduct an investigation to discover the identity of the child who committed the act of anti-Semitism, according to Nonna Neft, the mother of the victim.
Neft found out about the incident from the mother of the boy who broke into the locker, who called to apologize, she said.
When Neft called the school, a guidance counselor told her that the incident was being investigated, and the perpetrator would be “punished appropriately,” she said.
The boy who broke into the locker was suspended for three days, Neft said. He was, however, permitted to continue to participate in extra-curricular activities.
“We take matters of harassment very seriously,” said Patrick O’Toole, superintendent of the Upper St. Clair School District. “And we take appropriate measures in response. We have policies we communicate to the students, and we take all necessary measures.”
O’Toole would neither confirm nor deny the specific incidents of anti-Semitism, saying it was against school district policy to comment on “individual student matters.”
When Neft spoke to O’Toole about the swastika matter, she asked that the school demand that the child who vandalized the locker apologize to her son, and that the school contact the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to arrange an educational program for the benefit of all students concerning “diversity and respecting differences,” she said
While Neft’s son did receive both a written and verbal apology, an educational program was not scheduled this year for the middle school.
“He [O’Toole] said they can’t jump into educational programs because of the actions of one or two children,” Neft said, adding that the superintendent agreed to incorporate such a program next year at the high school for the benefit of the incoming ninth-graders.
Several weeks following the swastika incident, Neft’s son was again harassed for being Jewish, this time by a different child who taunted him about coins in a pool while on a field trip to Kennywood.
The following day, yet another child told Neft’s son he could not join in a game of Frisbee, saying, “You get out of here. Go chase a penny.”
Neft reported the incidents to the middle school principal, who told her the children who made the comments would be “punished appropriately.”
At Upper St. Clair High School, several months ago, a student intentionally erased from a library computer all files and homework belonging to a Jewish student, replacing it with pictures of the Holocaust, and a derogatory comment about Jews.
“No one from the school called me,” said the mother of the Jewish student, “although the computer IT person knew about it, as well as the librarian.”
The Jewish student’s mother said it was “very disturbing” that no one from the school contacted her.
“What if he was in danger?” she said. “How did I know my son was safe there the next day at school?”
Anti-Semitic acts happen “quite often” in public schools, said Nina Sundell, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Every school district is going to handle these situations differently.”
“It is important that the perpetrators understand the gravity of what they have done,” Sundell said.
It is always better to try “to stop hatred before it occurs,” she added, noting that it is proven that anti-discrimination programs in schools do help reduce these types of acts.
The student who committed the anti-Semitic act received an in-school, three-day suspension, according to the mother of the Jewish student. An in-school suspension requires the student to be in school, but he cannot attend classes.
“I wasn’t satisfied with the way the school handled it,” said the mother of the Jewish student. “They said they don’t expel for something like that. So, what do you expel for?”
The superintendent of the school district eventually contacted her and apologized, she said.
“He said he did not feel this was handled appropriately,” she said
While she was unsatisfied with the school’s response to the incident, she said she was impressed with support her family received from the police at the high school, as well as from a Jewish member of the Upper St. Clair School board.
While the family has been in the Upper St. Clair School District for 10 years, this was its first run-in with anti-Semitism.