Great Barrington — Wafting rumors of anti-Semitic incidents at Monument Valley Regional Middle School, a swastika spray-painted near the entrance of a house on Division Street, and an upcoming Anti-Defamation League (ADL) workshop for students and parents entitled “Confronting anti-Semitism,” have made people wonder whether there is a larger latent problem in South County.
The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires is taking it seriously enough to have scheduled two seminars on Sunday, “Confronting Anti-Semitism: a Family Awareness Program,” for Jewish high school and middle school students and their parents, at Hevreh in Great Barrington and Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield.
“We don’t have a rampant issue,” said Dara Kaufman, president of the Jewish Federation. “Middle school kids sometimes use language they don’t understand the impact of. They are still trying to figure out their way in the world. If I thought there was an issue, we’d be talking about it more publicly.”
Kaufman said the ADL’s “Family Awareness Program” workshop for Jewish middle and high school students and their parents, is meant “to help parents should they ever be in that position,” and said that anti-Semitic incidents need to be “handled appropriately by parents and the school.”
Great Barrington schools are in prevention mode, said both Monument Valley Regional Middle School Principal Ben Doren and Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young. Monument Valley, Doren said, has a “very active PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support) program that was started at the elementary school 6 years ago.” It’s a national program, “an approach to building school culture that emphasizes positive school culture, rather than a culture of discipline.” The school has other programs that work on healthy student interactions, including a mentoring program brought in by Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless and his office. Doren said 40 percent of 7th and 8th graders are mentors.
Doren said the school still uses consequences and discipline. “When things happen, we take it seriously,” and Doren said the school has “reached out to the ADL.” The organization tackles all forms of bigotry and threats to civil rights, though it was initially founded to illuminate anti-Semitism and stop it. “It happens everywhere,” Doren said of hate-speech generally, “and it happens here. It’s why we have an actual bullying policy.”
“Academics are important,” but the role of school is also to teach children “to be citizens of the world,” he added.
Doren also noted: “With the rise in social media kids have exposure to things parents used to be able to control.”
Monument High Principal Marianne Young says she isn’t sure how much blame to lay on social media, but noted that a number of slurs, including “the n-word,” are commonly used on social media, and students claim: “That’s just what we say…and they say they didn’t mean anything.” But Young says regardless, “we try to educate students on how that language impacts our school community.” As a long-time principal, Young says she sees these forces as “cyclical, and certain issues, certain phobias, or certain prejudices surface all the time, and it’s hard to gauge whether there’s an increase in incidents or a stronger response.”
Young said she doesn’t see anti-Semitic incidents quite as much, and it’s been a long time since one occurred. In the last few years, she said, racial incidents have been more prevalent, particularly in “the athletic domain,” and have included a parent yelling “awful racial epithets at a basketball game,” and a bi-racial student being “verbally assaulted” on the soccer field by a player on another team. The referee in that case failed to make a call, Young said. It was an opportunity, however, to flick the floodlights on an ugly reality: the parents of the player and the school worked with local organizations and the ADL, and used “respect forums” to educate students.
What are “more subtle, less controversial,” forms of these behaviors, Young said, are those arising from “socioeconomic differences” and the “academically inclined versus not.” Young says these “more hidden” and “what appear to be acceptable” issues “keep people locked in the way they judge themselves.”
“When [incidents] happen, we try to create leadership opportunities for students,” Young said of the school’s handling of all forms of bias made evident.
The high school has worked with the ADL before, and has a mentoring program through the ADL’s “World of Difference,” an “anti-bias” program. Last year, 10 mentors were sent to the ADL’s world congress in Boston, and this last December, the ADL trained 18 Monument students to develop “peer, student-led leadership on tolerance, inclusion and respect,” that runs the gamut from religion to sexual orientation, from class-ism to racism. Some of those mentors will work with middle school students as well.
Last year, advanced drama students from Monument High created a series of videos known as the “Tolerance Project,” Young said, that are available on YouTube, and parts of which are shown to incoming freshman. The introduction video is a mash-up of student and faculty interviews, and clips from TV shows meant to demonstrate how deeply lodged intolerance has been in popular culture, and the complexity of reversing what are sometimes highly nuanced attitudes in a changing world. And one student in the video says tolerance alone may not be enough:
“When you tolerate someone…you know who they are, but you’re not necessarily accepting of them…acceptance is better…because tolerance is just tolerating someone and allowing them to be there. A more positive thing to hope for is acceptance.”