Parent whose daughter was called ‘grimy Jew’ wants Saugerties School district to do more to fight bias

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The mother of a Saugerties teen who says she was the victim of anti-Semitic harassment at the junior high school is calling on Saugerties Central School District officials to take a stronger stand against racial, religious and ethnic bias.

“Susan,” who asked that her real name not be used out of concern for her daughter’s privacy, said the incident occurred on March 2 in an eighth-grade math class at the junior high school after her daughter mentioned in conversation that she was Jewish. Susan said that a female classmate then asked a boy for coin, then flung it towards her daughter. When her daughter picked it up and handed it back to her, Susan said the girl responded, “Don’t you want it you grimy Jew?” Susan said that when she learned of the incident, she immediately contacted school officials.

The next day, she said, she met with high school Vice Principal Lee Molyneaux and a school social worker who coordinates the school’s compliance with the state’s anti-bullying Dignity for All Students Act. Susan said the administrators expressed concern over the incident and appeared receptive to her request that more be done to combat bias harassment in the school. But, she said, they also seemed to view the incident in isolation, as a single occurrence rather than part of a larger problem. In further conversations with her daughter, Susan said, she learned that anti-Semitic and racist comments were common at the school.

Advertisement

“This isn’t an isolated occurrence that just slipped through the cracks,” said Susan. “This is going on every day in the cafeteria.”

Another Saugerties parent, Zach Carey, said that incident, and the school’s response, was similar to what happened several years ago when his daughter, now a high school senior was at the junior high school. Carey said after he reported that students had hurled pennies, along with anti-Semitic remarks, at his daughter, school officials’ response was tepid

“They basically brought [the perpetrators] into the office and told them not to do it again,” said Carey. “There were no consequences of any sort and no follow-through.”

School officials have remained tight-lipped about the incident and efforts to combat bias harassment in the district in general. Junior High School Principal Thomas Averill did not respond to an email, or reply to several calls for comment over the past two weeks. Saugerties School Superintendent Seth Turner responded to interview requests with a brief emailed statement stating that the school handled incidents in compliance with state and federal law. In the email Turner also denied that the school was “stonewalling” media inquiries and said that he was aware of a social media post by a reporter asking about bias incidents in Saugerties schools.

Members of the Saugerties Board of Education did not reply to emails to their official district accounts seeking comment.

On March 14, Deputy Schools Superintendent Larry Mautone emailed a response to a reporter’s questions that detailed three district polices based on state and federal law that prohibit discrimination and, in the case of the Dignity for All Students Act, requires schools to investigate and report bullying based on, among other things, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and weight. Each school in the district also employs two DASA coordinators trained to investigate and respond to allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Mautone added that the junior/senior high school featured a “redirect room” designed to “raise awareness and sensitivity to acts of bullying and discrimination.”

Mautone also detailed the school’s response to allegations like the one reported by Susan, writing: “All district investigations are completed promptly after receipt of any reports and are handled in compliance with district policy and state and/or federal law. In the event any such investigation reveals harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination, the district will take prompt action reasonably calculated to end the harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination, eliminate any hostile environment, create a more positive school culture and climate, prevent recurrence of the behavior, and ensure the safety of the student or students against whom such harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination was directed. Such actions will be taken consistent with applicable laws and regulations, district policies and administrative regulations, and collective bargaining agreements, as well as the district’s code of conduct and any and all applicable guidelines approved by the board.”

Mautone also wrote that Saugerties schools had not experienced a rise in bias harassment in the 2016-2017 school year. While the district has not yet fulfilled a Freedom of Information Act Request for records of reportable incidents under DASA, statistics available from the State Education Department show that reportable incidents at the junior high school declined from 37 during the 2014-2015 school year to nine in the school year that ended in June 2016. No information was available on DASA incidents during the 2016-2017 school year.

If Mautone’s assessment is correct, the district would appear to be bucking a nationwide trend that has seen a sharp increase in bias incidents driven by the divisive 2016 presidential election. In an unscientific poll of 10,000 education professionals conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one quarter reported “specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric.” The incidents ranged from racist graffiti and name calling to physical assaults. Half reported that students were “targeting each other” based on which candidate they had supported during the election. Another 40 percent reported derogatory language aimed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and gays. Locally, Anti-Defamation League anti-bias educator for Upstate New York, Beth Martinez, said that she had seen a major increase in reported bias incidents in schools since November’s election.

“I’m getting a lot of calls and emails from parents and schools,” said Martinez. “In some cases the schools are being proactive and in some cases they’re being reactive because they’ve had incidents.”

Martinez coordinates the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” program in 53 upstate schools. The protocol calls for participating schools to form a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and students to address bias harassment and bullying. Students are also asked to sign a “resolution of respect” committing to combating bias in school. Finally, participating schools must hold three anti-bias/bullying events over the course of a school year. The events typically involve small-group training for teachers and administrators on how to recognize and respond to bias incidents.

“We find an intersect between bias and bullying, the two really go hand in hand,” said Martinez. “So if you want to address bullying, bias harassment has to be part of the conversation.”

Susan, meanwhile, is still waiting to find out how school officials will address her concerns. A school board meeting this week where board members were set to discuss the incident was postponed due to a snowstorm. Susan said she hopes the resolution will involve something more than addressing a single act by a single student.

“Talking to my daughter it sounds like that kind of language is commonplace, kids think [calling someone a grimy Jew] is the same as saying ‘you jerk,’” said Susan. “I think there needs to be some kind of program that’s part of the curriculum that helps children understand why these things are hurtful and that they’re not OK.”

There are 5 comments

  1. Nicole

    Unfortunately, when I hear that a parent is trying to get Saugerties Jr/Sr High’s officials to do something, I immediately think to myself “yeah, good luck!” My children attended this school for a brief time before moving and I, as well, attended this school as a teen and I have seen little action taken to prevent racism or bullying. I was being bullied by a girl in Jr high and when I told, they brought her into the guidance office (where I was, along with my mother) and told her not to do it anymore. That was like throwing fuel on the fire! But, once my friends got involved and told this girl that if she didn’t stop, they would start doing it to her, she ran to the office and MY FRIENDS were all SUSPENDED for standing up for me when others didn’t!!!
    My daughter was being bullied and the girl got behind her and tried to push her down the stairs! She came home and told me and I grabbed my keys to head up to the school. She asked me not to and said that she would go to the office and let them know what happened, so I gave her the chance to do it on her own. The next day, she went and said something about everything that was going on and was told “oh, that’s not bullying!” Needless to say, nothing was done, even when I went in. The school is a joke and has been for 20+ years…that I can speak for!

  2. Shirley Polishook

    The first of my mother’s family arrived from England in 1640. Deacon Judd was seeking a better life. He started a Congregational Church in CT. My father’s father arrived from Lithuania in 1898. He was fleeing the Russian army wanting to conscript him. The woman he married in PA was fleeing the opression of Catholics, was helped by a Jew to escape. My husband’s father arrived in 1910 from Russia by way of Argentina, seeking a better life. They are Jewish. Some of his family later died at the hands of the Nazis. We consider ourselves an immigrant family. We have lived in Saugerties for almost 45 years now.

    When I was younger, I found I just couldn’t understand how people in villages near the Nazi death centers could say they didn’t know what was going on just a few kilometers away. Could they not smell the smoke of burning bodies? I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that people were willing to sponsor the deaths of others who were their one time neighbors.

    Last fall a local bookstore found themselves being chastised for showing the swastika, a very old symbol the Nazis had commandeered. Some felt the children shouldn’t see that symbol as they walked to school. That the symbol was obscene and that children shouldn’t know about what it has come to represent. The bookstore was trying to open a dialogue about this very subject. How does a country become so uncaring that they are willing to kill other people’s babies because “you can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.”

    Reading the story about a child in the Saugerties school system who was taunted by other children about being Jewish alarms me. Yes, the school should do more to create tolerance among the students, should do all it can to prevent the bullying that can go on among children of this age. However, as the saying goes, “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” I wonder if the parents of these children feel the same way their children do. Did these children learn to hate some others because of the attitudes of their elders? Hate others who don’t belong to the same church or neighborhood or political party or wealth level. I expect the schools to teach our children to write, read, create, think, and understand. I expect their parents to teach them to be human, to respect others, to be tolerant of diversity, to obey the laws of our land. If they choose to teach them a religion, they should be sure they are not also teaching them to hate.

  3. Shirley Polishook

    sorry, accidentally dropped the last sentence.

    The answer to the question of “how does a country become so uncaring that they are willing to kill…? IS just a little bit at a time.

    Shirley Polishook

  4. Ruth

    I attended SHS and am Jewish. A fellow student who did not like my writing in school paper started rumor that he wanted to crucify me. He was told to stop by Dean but racial underpinnings were never addressed.

Post Your Thoughts