the desk says "Jews are evil" with several swastikas
A desk at Alameda High School with anti-Semitic graffiti on it, 2016

J. special report: Anti-Semitism at Bay Area schools shows dramatic spike

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Alameda High School freshman Natasha Waldorf was sitting at the back of geometry class talking with a friend, killing time until the bell rang. A text message popped up from someone she didn’t know — a cartoon image of a Nazi officer and “Mr. Ethnic Cleansing” written in bright red letters. Assuming it was sent to her by mistake, Waldorf ignored it.

the three stand together for a bat mitzvah portrait
Natasha Waldorf, seen here with parents Mel Waldorf and Jessica Lindsey, received anti-Jewish text messages from a classmate at Alameda High School in January.

Things got worse.

She got another text from the same unfamiliar number the next period when she was in English class, and this time it included her name and the word “kike” with other anti-Semitic insults. “It became scary, because I was targeted for being Jewish, but also I was specifically targeted,” she said.

By the time Waldorf got to her grandmother’s house that evening she was shaken. “When I’m anxious I get bad stomach aches,” she said. “It was stressful.”

[Zoom in and explore the map above to see details on the incidents uncovered by J.’s investigation.]

Waldorf blocked the number before she went to sleep but didn’t tell her grandmother because she hadn’t wanted to upset her. When she showed her parents the texts the next day, they immediately headed to the police station to report the incident.

“It got really serious,” Waldorf said. “It was dark and raining, we had to wait half an hour because [the cops] were busy. I was still worried that someone would find out that I reported it.”

As it turned out, the boy who instigated the racist messages — he reportedly encouraged another boy to send them — was a friend of Waldorf’s, which made the incident all the more troubling for her. “I was so confused, I was disoriented.”

Ultimately, the student who sent the texts was made to apologize to Waldorf and received counseling from the high school. But the experience has had a lasting effect on Waldorf. “Why,” she wondered, “would anyone want to do that to me?”

Waldorf’s experience comes amid a national wave of anti-Jewish activity that has left many in the Bay Area and around the country feeling targeted. So far this year, 150 bomb threats have been leveled at Jewish institutions in North America and several Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized, among other hate-fueled incidents.

Schools appear to reflect the national tension; reports of anti-Semitic vandalism and bullying at nondenominational K-12 schools in California have doubled since November compared with the same period the previous year, according to Anti-Defamation League data — a phenomenon that some attribute to the heated tenor of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Screenshot of anti-Semitic text sent to Natasha Waldorf
Screenshot of anti-Semitic text sent to Natasha Waldorf

“One of the disturbing trends we have found was rhetoric from the campaign, or references to the campaign, finding its way onto middle school and high school campuses,” said ADL regional director Seth Brysk. “And again a sense of, as children will do, reflecting on things they are seeing and hearing elsewhere on campus.”

Though the ADL does not break down incidents beyond the state level, “I would say in the Bay Area we are not much different than what’s going on nationally,” Brysk said.

J. decided to take a closer look at what’s happening at Bay Area public schools, requesting records of reported anti-Semitic activity from approximately 40 districts in the region.

Those records showed a spike in incidents at schools in nearly every county, from Marin to the Peninsula to the East Bay and beyond.

So far this year, 29 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported by more than 25 schools — compared with 25 incidents reported by more than 16 schools in all of 2016.

Some schools have experienced multiple incidents, while others faced ongoing problems in the classroom. Many of the incidents have not been reported in the news media, and some parents of the affected students have complained about slow or lackluster responses from administrators and school districts.

Of the 40-some districts where J. sought records, 10 said they could not locate records related to anti-Semitic activity, and two asked for time to search more thoroughly.

Brysk noted that “typically one of the major problems is underreporting. People for a variety of reasons are afraid” to report anti-Semitism at schools, “so that is an enduring problem with this issue.”

Pedro Noguera, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, called the Bay Area numbers “shocking.”

“We know there is evidence that this is happening throughout the country right now,” said Noguera. “One interpretation is that people who [have] intolerant, biased views feel emboldened and can now express them.”

While the Bay Area numbers have increased, they don’t tell the whole story. And, as experts point out, even one anti-Semitic incident at a public school is too many.

“Schools tend to be representative of the trends in our broader society,” Brysk said. “This is also true when it comes to the recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents on campuses. Anti-Semitism must not be ignored or tolerated as it remains a serious concern in our society, including in our schools.”

The California Department of Education provides broad guidelines to school districts on how to maintain campuses that are free from harassment, intimidation and bullying based on ethnicity. But it gives each district latitude on how to deal with problematic behaviors. Because of the patchwork of expertise and understanding about often complex issues, not all schools are equally prepared to handle situations that arise.

While there is some agreement by experts on how to handle anti-Semitism or other racist activity at schools, the responses from schools vary widely — leaving some parents and students frustrated.

An anti-Semitic text exchange between high school freshman Natasha Waldorf and a fellow student
An anti-Semitic text exchange between high school freshman Natasha Waldorf and a fellow student

“There are some people who have experience, and they say ‘I’ve dealt with this,’ and they have a certain amount of experience and knowledge base to apply,” Brysk said. “But for some people, who have never dealt with it — they got into this business to teach math, not to necessarily understand those kinds of complex interactions, and the subject matter may be beyond the scope of their expertise.”

Following Waldorf’s troubling experience in January, her mother, Jessica Lindsey, said the school was slow to respond and that it took a letter from the ADL recommending possible actions for school officials to do anything.

“There really hasn’t been much of a response,” said Lindsey. “I’m not feeling at all very good about how the superintendent or school responded.”

For his part, Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said the district immediately responded to the text incident, has been in touch with the Waldorfs and sought assistance from the ADL to improve teacher and administrative responses to such incidents.

“I don’t want to dismiss this at all,” McPhetridge said. “I spoke to the girl in question, I spoke about it at a board meeting, and this district has taken a pledge to be welcoming to people of all faiths.”

Because of privacy issues, McPhetridge would not comment on the specifics of disciplinary action taken by the school. But he said that he, too, has noticed an uptick in incidents that involve religion or ethnicity, and he has vowed to remain vigilant.

“The truth of the matter is that we can never rest,” he said. “We’re grappling with the question of how to do more, but we know we need to do more.”

Officials at one of the largest districts in the state, the San Francisco Unified School District, reported two anti-Semitic incidents in fall 2016, according to documents obtained via a public records request. But it’s unclear whether any corrective action took place beyond disciplining the students involved.

One incident involved a Nazi symbol drawn on a bulletin board at Lowell High School in October. The responsible student was directed to make amends through community service and restorative justice, a system of repairing harm through mediation, according to a memo obtained by J.

District staff also reported an incident at Washington High School around the same time. During a pep rally last fall, students allegedly raised their arms in a Nazi salute, while one addressed the crowd with “aggressive profanity that was extremely offensive toward women,” according to a Dec. 16 email message from a school official. That official — district lawyers redacted the name from documents — referred to a district investigation of the incident and asked for a status update. “Beyond this case, I urge you to establish and communicate clear policy about how hate speech and hate crimes are to be handled within SFUSD,” the official wrote.

A swastika spray-painted on the ground at John M. Horner Middle School in Fremont
A swastika spray-painted on the ground at John M. Horner Middle School in Fremont

The documents do not indicate the results of the investigation or say what measures the school took to prevent such incidents in the future.

SFUSD officials emailed J. after this story was initially published with a prepared statement about the district’s efforts to promote “community, tolerance, and equity.” Officials did not share specifics about the incidents revealed in school documents.

Chief communications officer Gentle Blythe wrote that both Washington and Lowell “have numerous practices in place to teach and reinforce expectations of treating all people with respect.” Blythe listed a number of community partnerships, curriculum initiatives that aim to, among other things, “maintain a bully-free environment.”

At Otis Elementary School in Alameda, the campus community was rocked in February by an anti-Semitic threat of violence from one student to another, according to documents obtained through a California Public Records Act request.

“Not much information has been released to affected parents regarding the incident this past week,” a concerned parent wrote to Principal Tonya Harris.

According to email exchanges among Otis staffers, it involved an anti-Semitic death threat as well as other racist and anti-Semitic material inside a Google document that was shared with students in a fourth-grade class. The student who produced the document was disciplined, and the school sent out a letter to parents.

At Novato High School in Marin County, anti-Semitic incidents occurred on a near daily basis in one class for “multiple weeks because they went unnoticed” by the teacher, according to an internal email message from Novato High Assistant Principal Tiffany Benson. The incidents took place in December and January.

After students reported what was happening, the administration launched an investigation and discovered that students had been drawing swastikas and Hitler characters on the classroom white board, as well as making racist slurs when testing audio equipment, such as “Testing, testing — dirty Jews,” according to documents.

Benson wrote in another email to Principal Matthew Baldwin and Assistant Superintendent Kris Cosca that the school would be documenting the findings in an official memo. In addition, the students who admitted their involvement were given detention and had to appear before peer court. Their parents also were contacted.

In a conference call with J., both Benson and Baldwin expressed shock that such activity had been going on in a classroom. “This kind of took us aback, that students would do this,” Baldwin said. “The teacher has never had anything like this happen, or even remotely like this.”

According to a memo, Benson instructed the teacher “to regain control of your classroom and create systems and consequences for inappropriate behavior that you will enforce consistently. Disrespectful, degrading or hateful speech, jokes or drawing must be addressed immediately and stopped.”

The district also called upon the National Equity Project, a nonprofit that aims to ensure equality in education. Lisa Lasky, a senior director with the project, conducted a workshop with all of the teachers at Novato High as well as the class where the incidents took place.

“I spent a period with the students,” said Lasky. “We helped them understand the responsibility of representing and respecting multiple stories and perspectives, connections and acceptance inside and outside the class. They had a thoughtful, honest conversation.”

At Willow Glen Middle School in San Jose, a February incident came to the administration’s attention after students reported a classmate in the school’s eating area “carrying several pictures of Adolf Hitler, goose-stepping yelling ‘Heil Hitler!’ and ‘knight, knight, knight.’ ” An investigation by school officials found that in addition to printing out a dozen pictures of Hitler, the student had approached a Jewish classmate and “harassed her with anti-Semitic remarks and comments” the day before the goose-stepping incident.

Dane Caldwell-Holden, director of student services at San Jose Unified School District, recommended that the Willow Glen student be expelled and prevented from returning to school grounds, according to documents.

In Walnut Creek, two anti-Semitic incidents were reported at Foothill Middle School. In a report filed on Jan. 17, an eighth-grade student said, “I really do not appreciate it when I turn around to my white board in math and see a swastica [sic] on it.” The student continued: “One other example is when lots of people always refer back to the gas chambers in whatever conversation I have. I’m not disrupting anybody in any way by ‘being Jewish,’ and I don’t know why people keep talking about it.”

At least one witness signed the incident report.

About a month later, also at Foothill, a student who was subjected to discipline wrote, “my friends told me to do a hale [sic] Hitler but we do that all the time in the past and now I just go into trouble … I don’t understand why I got into trouble now but not later in the past.”

In response to these incidents, according to a district record, Foothill “did participate in a tolerance lesson that lasted at least 20 minutes in each class to talk about bias, discrimination, etc. Hoping to get these solutions posted around the school and shift the focus on compassion and kindness as the norm. The messages will be reiterated throughout the school year.”

Inside the ADL’s Market Street offices, Seth Brysk speaks with the measured cadence of a man tackling a serious and growing problem facing the Jewish community.

On the wall, hanging near children’s artwork promoting messages of inclusion, is a copy of the ADL’s founding declaration from 1913. Brysk marveled that the document was created at a time when women could not vote, Jim Crow was the law, and open anti-Semitism was normal.

“It’s incredible to consider that all these people would put their names in public at that time,” he says about the signatories on the declaration. “There are so many from California, from the Bay Area.”

Obviously, things have changed considerably in the past century. But as J.’s investigation reveals, anti-Semitic attitudes and actions targeting Jewish students still occur. And experts concur that disciplining students is not a solution in and of itself, and that schools need to tailor their response to each incident since two are rarely alike.

“We want to see a series of activities that occur over the course of a school year,” Brysk said. “Sometimes these can be tied to events that occur during the school year, and like any other aspect of education, it’s worth repeating. For the lesson to really stick, you want to be able to have it approached from a variety of viewpoints and in a variety of ways and over time, so that those lessons are fully absorbed by the entire campus community.”

Some schools have opted to be proactive by using the ADL’s No Place for Hate program, designed to incorporate anti-bias and anti-bullying resources into a school’s existing resources. Twenty-three Bay Area schools have used the program in the current school year.

But as the problems at Novato High School illustrate, incidents can happen even at schools with no history of anti-Semitism or other hateful speech or activity.

Brysk pointed to the ADL’s “pyramid of hate,” which shows how anti-Semitic and racist activity can build up from relatively small acts to much more serious and violent ones, and cautioned educators against downplaying what might appear to be minor incidents.

“One of the pitfalls we find educators falling into is that the immediate assumption tends to be, ‘this is an isolated incident, this is a bad egg, this is a one-off thing. Let’s deal with this episode, let’s deal with this person who’s said these things, and then move on,’ ” he said.

“The problem is, typically it’s not an isolated incident. If someone is comfortable enough to act out or speak out in this way, there is an environment there that is fertile for this kind of activity.”

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.