No two people were more concerned to read in the newspaper recently that a ninth grader at Abington Junior High School had experienced anti-Semitism in school than the boy’s mother and the superintendent of his school district.
Among other things, 15-year-old Ben Miller-Sobel said in the March 14 Jewish Exponent cover story “Educating to Eradicate Prejudice” that a classmate once said he’d heard Miller-Sobel’s grandmother “screaming from the ovens,” which was clearly a reference to the Holocaust.
Amy Sichel, the superintendent of the Abington School District and a loyal Exponent reader, said she “was saddened to hear these perceptions.”
Sichel asked the school’s principal, Mark Pellico, to speak with Ben and his parents to see if he was OK. The family was told that Ben should immediately report future incidents to school officials.
Miller-Sobel’s comments appear to have struck a nerve, raising questions among educators and parents about how prevalent anti-Semitism is at suburban schools and whether or not students are equipped to respond.
At Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel’s Hebrew school, one teacher used the story to spark a discussion among his students about anti-Semitism in public schools. According to the teacher, Ami Monson, the kids spoke about what should be labeled anti-Semitism, since Miller-Sobel had indicated he was reluctant to label what he’d experienced as such.
The episode also raised questions about what more can a school district that has already implemented a number of anti-bias and anti-bullying programs do?
In addition to taking part in the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate initiative, Abington School District also participates in the Olewus Anti-Bullying program, a 35-year-old initiative that was developed by a Norwegian academic and has been implemented in schools throughout the world. Abington also has long included Holocaust education in its curriculum.
“It is important to respond to the needs of kids to make sure that they are all comfortable and safe in our schools. I would want kids to feel that all of the adults in the building are approachable,” Sichel said.
Pellico, the school principal, said that he believes students “know what bias is. I really do believe that students are fairly clear and educated and sensitive to these issues.”
“We continue to work diligently every single day in ensuring that ever single one of the 1,700 students is educated in a safe, supportive and respectful environment,” he said.
Ann Miller-Sobel said the article, and subsequent conversations she had with Ben and with her college-age son, Jacob, proved to be a wake-up call for her about the level of anti-Semitism that suburban kids are exposed to.
Miller-Sobel said her son is resilient and proud of his Jewish identity, but is worried about other teens who might be more vulnerable. She said she was gratified that school officials reacted to the story and approached her and her son, but she thought it should now lead to a new sort of educational program.
“I was dissatisfied with the response,” she said. “My kid has a strong identity. There are too many kids that don’t have them.”
Sichel said another program isn’t necessarily the answer. She noted that the district is in the process of introducing an approach to discipline and conflict resolution, known as restorative practices, that is less about punishment and more about helping those who have done wrong learn to do right.
“I wouldn’t call it frustrating, I would call it disappointing,” Sichel said, referring to the fact that instances of anti-Semitism still apparently occur in the district. “If I had a silver bullet, I would be fixing the world. We are educating the students to be good democratic citizens. We will be doing this forever. The world works a lot better today than it worked 20 years ago, 40 years ago.”
Randi Boyette, associate regional director of the ADL for education, who organized the program for teenagers about anti-Semitism where Ben was first interviewed, said the kinds of things he described aren’t unique to any one school and happen all across the region.
“The takeaway is that No Place for Hate is a goal and something to work towards. It doesn’t mean there are not going to be issues at a school,” she said. “What it should mean is that, when incidents occur, there are procedures in place that would not have these negative behaviors go unchallenged.”
Abington officials, she said, clearly want the district “to be a place where all of their students are respectful” of diversity, “which is one of the strenths of Abington.”