Three weeks after an alleged anti-Semitic incident at Saugerties Junior High School put a spotlight on bias harassment in the school, administrators and trustees addressed the issue before an audience that included the victim’s family and a local rabbi.
The comments came in response to a March 2 incident at the Junior High School in which an 8th grade girl allegedly threw a coin at a female classmate and called her a “grimy Jew.” The girl’s mother reported the incident to school authorities. But, when speaking with Saugerties Times, she expressed concern that the school did not have programs in place to combat what she described as routine expressions of racism, anti-Semitism and other bias by students. Members of the school board were expected to discuss the matter, and potential punishment at a meeting scheduled for March 14. The meeting was postponed until Tuesday due to winter storm Stella. Trustees discussed specifics of the case in a closed-door executive session before opening the meeting to public comments.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation attended the meeting and spoke with school officials during a break. Kligler said that the incident was particularly troubling in light of a recent wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and his sense that intolerance and hate speech were on the rise. Kligler attributed the change to the election of President Donald Trump who electrified his base during the campaign with no-holds-barred rhetoric aimed at illegal immigrants, Muslims, the media and political opponents.
“I’ve heard about these kinds of incidents continuously over the years. The difference is now we have national leadership that models hate speech,” said Kligler. “The kind of civil leadership we rely on to keep the boundary between what is acceptable and what is not is no longer present.”
Woodstock-based publicist Abbe Aronson addressed the board during public speaking and asked board members if there were plans in place implement new anti-bias programs or other “targeted solutions” in response to the incident. Aronson is also a partner in the Saugerties-based youth music program The Paul Green Rock Academy. Aronson offered to donate proceeds from the program’s planned June 11 “unity benefit” at Colony Café to help fund a new bias awareness program at the school. “I’m hopeful that in your executive session, you’ve already addressed the anti-Semitic incident that took place in this district earlier this month and I’m eager to learn more about that response,” said Aronson. “However, equally important is our community’s stance on this sort of thing. Hate speech, bias rhetoric, bullying and intimidation is simply not acceptable.”
Junior/Senior High School Principal Tom Averill addressed the board to defend his administration’s handling of bullying, harassment and bias in the school. Averill said that all instances reported were thoroughly investigated documented and tracked. Averill also noted that the school ran both ongoing anti-bullying programs and special events including assemblies with Holocaust survivors intended to combat intolerance. “I want this board of education to know that it does not take petitions or concerns or local newspaper articles for me as a principal to understand the importance of daily attention to these matters,” said Averill.
Board member and SUNY New Paltz education professor Katie Emerson-Hoss drew a distinction between bullying — which experts and state law define as repeated, intentional behavior with an imbalance of power between aggressor and victim — and bias harassment, which can include off-hand racist remarks or insensitive language. Emerson-Hoss said the most recent incident highlighted the need to combat both phenomena. “We can’t tolerate bias harassment,” said Emerson-Hoss. “It’s not just bullying, it’s the kind of minor incidents that in reality aren’t so minor.”
Board member and social studies teacher James Mooney Jr. called anti-Semitism “a plague,” adding that he and other board members took the latest incident very seriously. But, Mooney said, he was heartened by the response of his students who had expressed disapproval when discussing the incident. Mooney echoed board President Robert Thomann who noted that several students who witnessed the incident had objected to the girl’s behavior. “They don’t pay attention [to most current events],” said Mooney of his students. “But they were ready to talk about this, and they’re not okay with it.”