Elkan Pleat, 16, speaking at San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education meeting on Oct. 28, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Elkan Pleat, 16, speaking at San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education meeting on Oct. 28, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)

‘I do not feel safe’: Danville teen pleads with school board to address antisemitism 

For more than two years, Elkan Pleat, 16, a junior at Monte Vista High School in Danville, hid an important part of his identity from the school community. He feared what would happen at school if people knew he was Jewish.

Since starting his freshman year, Pleat has seen more than 20 swastikas in graffiti around campus. He’s heard many Holocaust jokes suggesting that someone should “finish what the Nazis started,” often referencing gas chambers and ovens. He’s made sure his Star of David necklace wasn’t visible, and recently stopped wearing it altogether.

But on Oct. 28, Pleat decided to take action.

Just hours after he’d seen a second swastika at school in two days — one in black ink in the boy’s bathroom with “sieg heil” scrawled underneath, the second carved into a wall in the gym — Pleat delivered an impassioned, three-minute speech during the public comment portion of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education meeting.

The school district serves some 30,000 students at 35 school sites in Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, Diablo and San Ramon. Monte Vista High has approximately 2,300 students.

Pleat’s family moved to Contra Costa County from northern New Jersey eight years ago, joined Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and settled in Danville, a town of 43,000 named one of the safest communities in California. The median household income is $167,827 and the population is 78 percent white, according to the most recent census data from 2020.

Shattering Danville’s reputation for warm, small-town charm, antisemitic flyers were discovered in February along a popular hiking trail. They included propaganda about the Holocaust alongside a photograph of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz. Then in April, the Danville Police Department condemned the antisemitic leaflets left outside several residences.

Since 2021, similar flyers have been found in cities and towns across the Bay Area.

In 2019 the Anti-Defamation League hosted multiple days of school assemblies in Burlingame focused on Jewish allyship in response to antisemitic jokes and bullying at both Burlingame Intermediate, a middle school, and Burlingame High School.

In 2017, an Alameda High School freshman was the target of frequent antisemitic taunts and cyberbullying over text messages from classmates.

Across California, Pleat noted that antisemitic attacks have risen sharply, citing the ADL’s 2021 audit showing 367 reported attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in California in 2021, nearly triple the attacks since 2015.

“I am very concerned that things are escalating,” Pleat said to the board, public attendees and others watching the Oct. 28 board of education meeting live on YouTube. “After speaking out tonight, I do not feel safe on your campus tomorrow. All I can think of is someone will look to shoot me because I am Jewish or because I spoke out tonight.”

In closing, the teen called for increased Holocaust education to address the antisemitism and Nazi graffiti he described.

Pleat, goalkeeper for the junior varsity water polo team, was unsure how his peers would treat him at school the day following his speech. He attended classes as usual after meeting with his school’s equity liaison in the morning. Then, in the middle of the school day, he was informed by Monte Vista’s principal, Kevin Ahern, that the swastika in the gym that had been plastered over was back on display. Ahern said in an interview with J. that it appeared someone had pushed their finger into the still-drying plaster and redrawn the swastika.

“It’s so frustrating, because in some cases, you feel like you’re chasing ghosts,” Ahern said, noting that it’s often difficult to catch the graffiti perpetrator, and in the case of the gym, no cameras are installed because it’s also a classroom.

In the end, the maintenance team scraped off the original plaster, replastered and resanded the wall using a quick-drying compound, then painted the wall to thoroughly conceal the swastika, he said. He also directed school monitors, paid employees who provide campus security, to do more frequent checks in bathrooms and to follow up on any vandalism by consulting video from cameras installed outside bathrooms.

The verbal barbs and antisemitic jokes, Ahern said, are “the big piece” he thinks the school needs to address explicitly and urgently.

To that end, this week’s “Mustang Moment” on Nov. 9 — a once-a-month discussion session around community norms and the harms of discrimination held during second period — will focus on antisemitism education and religious tolerance. In each classroom, a teacher-led presentation will be followed by student discussion and written reflection. The school’s equity liaison developed the lesson in collaboration with several Jewish students on campus, including Pleat.

“The focal point needs to land on what these symbols mean, and all the ramifications of what they mean, and what they represent,” Ahern said.

When Ahern became principal eight years ago, 65% of the students were white and 35% were students of color, according to Ahern. Today, 55% are students of color (predominantly of Asian heritage) and 45% are white.

Show video of the liberation of a camp. Bring a Holocaust survivor to talk about their experiences. Make it up close, personal, emotional, so that they truly feel.

Pleat said that while he appreciates the quick response and support he’s received from school officials, he’s not satisfied with the minimal Holocaust education he’s observed in the school’s curriculum — a page in his AP European history textbook and a lesson on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Show video of the liberation of a camp. Bring a Holocaust survivor to talk about their experiences. Make it up close, personal, emotional, so that they truly feel,” Pleat told J.

Ahern said he agrees that Holocaust education is key, but it won’t be easy to implement. For example, he said he received resistance from some teachers who said they’d feel “uncomfortable” leading the classroom discussion on antisemitism, due to insufficient training on teaching a complex subject.

“I think that Elkan’s conversation with the board has led to some other conversations at a district level of how we bring in some deeper levels of Holocaust education into our particular history classes and English classes to ensure that students are very clear about what occurred,” Ahern said. “The problem is not gone, and we need to do everything we can to stamp it out.”

Ken Mintz, the outgoing president of the board of education, said he couldn’t comment on how the board would address Pleat’s specific concerns at the district level. But he did echo Ahern’s point that addressing antisemitism is now a higher priority, in large part, because of Pleat’s speech.

“These are things that we take very seriously,” said Mintz, who is Jewish.

The 18-year member of the board told J. that he and his fellow board members have long been aware of antisemitic acts and swastikas at Monte Vista High, and through their work with the ADL, seven schools in the San Ramon Valley were designated as No Place for Hate campuses in 2017.

Added Mintz: “Here’s a case where, because we have had these kinds of things happen before, that we were already taking action on it. But at the same time, having the students come up and speak [like Pleat did] speaks volumes.”

In the past, Ahern has disciplined some students by handing out a five-day suspension, the maximum allowed by the state, and working with the student after the suspension following the guidelines laid out in the district’s Responding to Discrimination and Hate handbook. “I will always try to educate,” Ahern said, “but at the same time, your actions have consequences.”

Pleat, who used to keep quiet when he heard an antisemitic joke, said he now feels empowered to report instances through the school district’s anonymous tip line, a resource the district introduced in 2017, or directly to an administrator. Ahern said he hopes the classroom discussions on antisemitism enable more students to do the same.

“The last thing you want is to then be targeted because you reported [an incident] or you snitched on somebody,” Pleat said. But at the school board meeting on Oct. 28, “I realized that better I should be a target than somebody who is not able to stand up for themselves or defend themselves.”

Pleat’s also thinking of his sister, a sixth-grader at Diablo Vista Middle School, who he said has been the target of antisemitic comments from classmates since she was in kindergarten.

Pleat’s mother, Arianna, said initially she was not in favor of him speaking up at the board of education meeting, worried for his safety and the possibility of retaliation.

Ahern said he has received messages of support from several local rabbis, including one who introduced him to a local interfaith council for guidance.

After this week’s classroom discussions, Ahern plans to continue developing programs with the ADL and hopes to bring a panel of speakers to school in the future, he said.

“Antisemitism isn’t just about religion. It’s also about race,” he said. “We need to think about that, what that duality looks like, and what that means.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.