Defaced locker at Burlingame High School
Defaced locker at Burlingame High School in May 2019.

Burlingame schools grapple with anti-Semitic incidents

With two anti-Semitic incidents over the past year unsettling Jewish parents, school administrators and the wider community, two public schools in Burlingame staged recent events with the ADL aimed at combating bias and hate.

On May 20, the Anti-Defamation League helped facilitate a community town hall at Burlingame Intermediate School, where middle-schoolers, teachers and school officials discussed how to create a shared society that is accepting and inclusive. The event also featured student-produced videos depicting a world without hate.

In February, two days of middle-school assemblies called “Become an Ally” focused on promoting kindness, encouraging peer-to-peer dialogue, and fighting hate and anti-Semitism. According to a report on the school website, the assemblies featured student council members and students from Burlingame High School, who used ADL resources to highlight how “everyday individuals made a tremendous difference during the Holocaust” and emphasize how “each of us can be someone others can count on.”

Both gatherings were in part responses to anti-Semitic incidents during the 2017-18 school year, according to one mom whose son reported the events to her.

Julie Ellman said her son, then a sixth-grader, was taunted for his Jewishness.

“It was ‘Heil Hitler,’” she told J. “People making jokes like, ‘What does Hitler say when he sneezes? A Jew.”

She continued: “People in the cafeteria, instead of saying his name, would say ‘Hey Jew.’ I think it happened throughout the year. He may not have told me everything. It was very hard to get it out.”

Ellman said school administrators were “very supportive” when the incidents came to their attention. A vice principal, whom she said is no longer at the school, helped identify the students involved — “20-some kids,” Ellman said — and then contacted their parents. In addition, principal Pam Scott sent an email to parents and made an announcement to students the day after the incidents surfaced.

“It was about all hatred, but mentioned anti-Semitism,” Ellman said about the email. “I was happy that she reached out to the entire community so that they knew what was going on.”

School officials offered to host an educational event on campus; meanwhile Ellman, a PR professional, reached out to the ADL. She said she was shocked at what her son experienced, even though she’s well aware of the increase in such incidents in today’s political and media environment.

“When it came into my family, I really wanted to do something,” she said. “Because it was really upsetting.”

In between the school assemblies and the town hall, another anti-Semitic incident — this time at Burlingame High School, a couple of miles from the middle school — rattled a Jewish family and spurred a public response by the principal. The April incident prompted a story in the student newspaper headlined “Anti-Semitism is alive and well at Burlingame.”

According to the paper and shown in photos taken by the family, the sophomore student’s gym locker was broken into and vandalized with a swastika and the word “fag” drawn in deodorant.

In an interview with J., the student, Ilan Rosenbaum, who is active in the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance but is not gay, said he felt “disappointment” when he discovered the graffiti but wasn’t surprised, because he’d seen it before.

“I’ve seen swastikas in tape,” he said.

Even the school newspaper acknowledged that while “this act seemed especially direct and hateful,” it was “not the first time Burlingame students have experienced anti-Semitic violence.”

The teen’s mother, Jessica Rosenbaum, contacted the school, which is part of the San Mateo Union High School District, and asked that the police be called to investigate what she believed was a potential hate crime. Police were on the scene later that evening, she said, and then came to her home to interview her and her son.

Afterward, Ilan lobbied the principal, Paul Belzer, to issue a public response and to facilitate trainings for students and staff.

When an incident happens, some schools are hesitant to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

“My son kept showing up at the principal’s office,” Ilan’s mom said. “He wanted a specific response. Not vague references to ‘vandalism’ or an ‘incident.’”

In an interview with J., Ilan said his desired outcome was “to have experts come in, and have teachers better trained on bullying and hate issues. Also, to show students not only why it’s not allowed, but why it’s bad.”

About two weeks after the vandalism was discovered and days after the deadly April 27 shooting at Chabad of Poway, Belzer addressed the matter in a monthly e-newsletter to parents.

“I want to share an event that took place recently where anti-semitic [sic] and homophobic slurs were written on a student’s locker,” he wrote in the “Principal’s Message” column. “Although we believe this was the act of one person, I felt compelled to share so that all families and students are aware of the importance of taking a stand against statements and acts of hate.

“With the recent acts of targeted violence against churches, mosques and synagogues as recent as this past weekend,” the message continued, “I encourage all BHS families to speak with their students about these events.”

Belzer did not respond to a J. request for additional comment.

Flare-ups of anti-Semitism are not new in American schools, nor are they foreign to the Bay Area. Speaking at the town hall in the middle-school library, Vlad Khaykin, associate regional director in the ADL’s San Francisco office and himself an alumnus of the two Burlingame schools in question, said he remembered kids doing “Heil Hitler” salutes when he was a student. Even more shocking, he recalled, one student did so during a Holocaust survivor’s school visit.

But ADL data showed a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents in U.S. schools and colleges from 2015 to 2017. In its report for 2017, the ADL noted that the number “nearly doubled for the second year in a row” — with 457 incidents at K-12 schools and 204 on college campuses. For 2018, however, the ADL’s annual audit showed a drop: 344 incidents at K-12 schools and 201 at colleges.

Khaykin attributed the changes in recent years to a shift in the political discourse and certain messages emanating from the current White House. “Things that people previously didn’t say in polite company, they now feel emboldened to say,” he said. “We are in a new era.”

Incidents are hardly confined to the two schools in Burlingame, according to Morgan Blum Schneider, who directs the Holocaust Center at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Schneider, who leads anti-Semitism education programs, said she’s observed a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents at Bay Area K-12 schools.

“It’s graffiti on campus, Nazi symbols, anti-Jewish symbols,” she said. “Some nasty language.”

In designing curricula and Holocaust education programming for Jewish and non-Jewish students, however, Schneider said she sees an opportunity for growth.

“How do we use this moment of hate and anti-Semitism as a learning opportunity?” She said. “What other issues of racism can we help to address?”

Several Jewish nonprofit professionals said the first step is naming the problem. Speaking about anti-Semitic hate speech in general, Sarah Fields, Peninsula public affairs and civic engagement manager for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said sometimes school administrators are slow to respond, or they pivot from the facts at hand.

“The reality is that when an incident happens, some schools are hesitant to acknowledge that there’s a problem,” said Fields, who often works with institutions in crafting responses to anti-Semitic incidents. “There’s so much pressure for schools to say that everything is great.

“That runs counter to how to effectively solve a problem,” she added. “To solve a problem, you have to first acknowledge that there is one.”

Ilan Rosenbaum has helped to make headway on that front, according to his mother. Burlingame High administrators recently agreed to meet with the ADL this summer to discuss an educational curriculum for students and staff during the upcoming school year.

“I’m proud of my son that he was so dogged that he got it done,” Jessica said. “But there should have been a message to the community the day it happened.”

documenting hate logoJ. is part of Documenting Hate, a coalition of newsrooms led by ProPublica to get a better picture of hate in America today. If you witness or hear about a possible hate incident, let us know by filling out this form.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.