Anti-Semitism Sparks Community Forum
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Anti-Semitism Sparks Community Forum

When word spread about the anti-Semitic vandalism discovered at Roswell’s Centennial High School Feb. 4, Lauren Menis of AIAAS immediately assembled a community forum.

Lauren Menis welcomed more than 250 people to Temple Emanu-El to question panelists about anti-Semitism in area schools.
Lauren Menis welcomed more than 250 people to Temple Emanu-El to question panelists about anti-Semitism in area schools.

When word spread about the anti-Semitic vandalism discovered at Roswell’s Centennial High School Feb. 4, Lauren Menis immediately switched gears. As founding partner of the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, a grassroots effort creating community solidarity to fight anti-Semitism and hate, Menis had been working on a planned program for a diverse group of teens for next fall. Instead, she decided to hastily provide a forum in which the community could voice their questions and concerns and get answers.

Six days later, at Temple Emanu-El Sunday, more than 250 filled the social hall to ask questions of nine panelists that included representatives from local school districts, the Georgia General Assembly, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Anti-Defamation League regional office and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust.

Menis was elated at the turnout. She also noted that 1,300 people watched the program on livestreaming.

“I decided to use Centennial as the catalyst,” she told the AJT. “It suddenly felt really necessary (to have a program). When something happens, not everyone wants to make a big deal about it. But this wasn’t the first school vandalism and it won’t be the last. There are so many anti-Semitic incidents in schools. I know parents often feel isolated and don’t know what to do, so I wanted to give everyone a voice.”

For an hour and a half on Sunday, she did just that, as one questioner after another asked about Holocaust education in Georgia, the proposed state hate crimes legislation, how to prevent future vandalism and how to encourage their children to report any bullying or harassment to parents and to schools.

“I was not surprised by any of the questions, but I was glad that the hate crimes legislation was brought up,” she said. “I think everything was covered that needed to be. All questions got answered. We would have kept going if there’d been more questions. I had no idea that the turnout would be so big; it shows there’s a need.”

Before Menis opened the forum for questions, she acknowledged that the anti-Semitic vandalism at Centennial, which included blue-painted swastikas at the entrance of the school, “is an incredibly emotional issue for a lot of people.”

Dr. Bre Peeler, assistant principal at Centennial, assured the audience that the school is working collaboratively and continuously to battle such vandalism.

Scott Hanson, principal of North Springs High School, noted that the Fulton County School District has provided millions of dollars to position cameras all over the campus, which, in a recent situation involving a racist sign on a wall, helped determine the perpetrator. He said they have had a couple of issues in the three years he’s been at North Springs,  and described how he handles the problems. “It’s not one size fits all, but kids have to come back to school, and they have to understand what they did. We want to help them. I want kids to be able to say, ‘I can recover from this.’”

Menis emphasized that for her, it’s not just about anti-Semitism, but about hate. And as Dr. Chris Matthews, assistant superintendent of Fulton County Schools, noted, “Hate is not a school-based problem, but a community-based problem. It’s a national problem.”

Dr. Quentin Fretwell of the Department of Student Relations for DeKalb County School District stressed that “this work has to be intentional.” Whether it’s bullying or some kind of discrimination, “this is a societal issue. Kids are sponges. We have to speak to adults to be good role models. The kids are watching us.”

In fact, Matthews suggested that parents ask their children who their “trusted adult” is in the school. He noted the importance of the kids having a go-to person with whom they feel comfortable and can talk to, whether it’s a janitor, teacher or someone in the cafeteria.

At Marist High School, Brendan Murphy, a history teacher who emphasizes Holocaust education, encourages his students to be introspective. But he says this is best done with parents, in dialogue around the dinner table.

Other panelists included Sally Levine, executive director of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust; Josh McLaurin, state representative for Georgia House District 51; and Andy Mossman, GBI assistant special agent in charge. All the panelists were carefully and quickly chosen, according to Menis. “Each had something specific to offer. Everyone (invited) said yes; we had to turn some away.”

Several panelists pointed to the valuable resources provided by the ADL – which was scheduled to meet with teachers this week – putting together a strategic plan to fight discriminatory vandalism. In response to several questions, panelists also noted how children and parents can report anti-Semitic harassment.

Dr. Allison Padilla-Goodman, ADL regional director, pointed out that incidents can be reported on its website, Anonymous tips also can be made to Fulton County school and district officials through its School Messenger Quick Tip App, According to that website, “Whether it’s about bullying, a friend in need of counseling, suspicious or illegal behavior observed on campus, … you can let us know without having to reveal your identity.”

AIAAS also provided information about a Georgia School Safety Hotline (1-877-SAY-STOP) and a Combat Hate App at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Not all participants in the forum were Jewish. Some non-Jewish residents and school representatives came to support the community, including a Presbyterian couple who approached Menis after the program. “That was amazing,” Menis said. “When something like this happens, you start to feel marginalized.” 

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