Two students at West Hartford’s Hall High School were the victims of anti-Semitic acts on Tuesday, and the administration and a group of students are now working together on a plan to bring an effective educational program to the Hall community.
By Ronni Newton
Hall High School junior Leah Jackson never thought she would be a target of anti-Semitism, until a hateful image was left on her desk during Tuesday’s morning’s chemistry class.
After Tuesday’s incident she was angry, but in an interview with We-Ha.com on Wednesday Jackson said that she now feels empowered, and she, the other student who was targeted, and five of their friends plan to use the experience to raise awareness and educate the rest of the Hall community about Judaism, diversity, and acceptance.
Jackson said that on Tuesday morning she was in chemistry lab, working with another girl and two boys. Their project included using small colored balls that represented molecules and creating compounds.
Jackson said she really likes chemistry, and was ready to get going on the project. “I was saying, ‘Let’s get our supplies,'” she said, “and the kid next to me said, ‘Jews are always so authoritative.”‘
The lab group was randomly assigned, and Jackson said she doesn’t know the other student well. “I was just caught completely off guard,” she said. While she thought the comment was rude and inappropriate, she decided to ignore it, and didn’t respond.
“We were working, and I was writing stuff down and then I looked up,” she said. “There was a swastika on my desk.”
The swastika had been formed out of the small colored balls. “He said, ‘Is this the right compound?'” said Jackson.
The student who created the swastika was the same student who had made the earlier comment.
“I saw it and I was so upset,” she said. She couldn’t understand why he would do such a thing to her. Jackson said her cheeks turned bright red.
Jackson went to the ladies’ room, and texted her best friend who met her there. Together they called her father. She and her friend went back to the classroom, told the chemistry teacher what had taken place. Along with Jackson’s father, they went to speak with the administration.
A second act, mimicking what happened to Jackson, took place between Jackson’s friend and another student later in the day.
On Wednesday, Hall Principal Dan Zittoun sent the following letter to students:
“The safety and wellness of the entire student body is my highest priority, everyday. The staff and students at Hall strive to create a safe learning environment where everyone feels comfortable. We take pride in the diversity of our school and community. As a collective group, our student body embraces this diversity and demonstrates a high level of respect. However, even in our community, we have isolated incidents that do not reflect our overall beliefs and culture and are not representative of the Hall community.
“Yesterday, the Hall administration investigated acts of anti-semitism. These acts go against every core belief and value at Hall. The acts were brought to our attention, investigated and handled in accordance with the student code of conduct. Acts against any marginalized groups will never be tolerated and we will continue to take measures to ensure that they are not repeated.
“I have already begun discussions with some students to take steps to make all students feel safe at school. In addition, we have also been in contact with various outside groups to discuss our current educational programming and explore new ones.
“Thank you all for your collective efforts in supporting our work to make Hall a safe learning environment.”
“I am very thankful not only that a student would come forward to share what happened to school administration, but is willing to give voice to her experience so that others, both children and adults, can learn from this,” Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore told We-Ha.com. “Every child deserves to feel safe and at home in their school and we will continue to do all that we can as educators to bring our children and our larger community together.”
Multiple, and extremely flagrant, anti-Semitic acts have been taking place at Amity High School in Woodbridge. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has gotten involved, and those issues have created a heightened sensitivity, Jackson said. She said that while what happened in West Hartford is nowhere near as extreme, it’s still highly disturbing.
Jackson is a member of BBYO (a Jewish teen organization), and she told the organization’s administrators about the incident. They reported it to the ADL.
Jackson and her friend who was targeted, and a girl from Amity High School who is also in BBYO, got together on a group chat Tuesday night, she said. “We discussed how we can make it better, how we can overcome what’s happening with positivity.”
On Wednesday morning, Jackson said that she, her friend who was targeted, and five other students who are BBYO members went to the Hall administration – Zittoun as well as the assistant principals – and told them they wanted to take action. “It’s an issue we really want to address,” she said.
They don’t want to just hold a big assembly, but rather reach out and educate the Hall community in a way that is engaging, Jackson said. “What we want to do is create workshops where we educate about the Holocaust, diversity, Judaism, and everything they’re unaware of.”
Jackson said that the group has proposed speaking with and educating students in their history classes. The small groups will be much more effective and engaging, she said.
The past 24 hours have been “insane,” Jackson said.
On Tuesday afternoon Jackson said she sat in the principal’s office with the student who had made the remarks to her and created the swastika. “He said it was supposed to be a joke,” that he joked around that way with his friends and that it wasn’t supposed to be cruel.
“People don’t realize what that symbol represents,” said Jackson. It’s not a joke and it’s highly offensive, no matter what religion they are.
“I know that we have reached out to the administration and they have investigated and are taking appropriate action,” ADL Executive Director Andy Friedland told We-Ha.com. “Unfortunately, incidents like this are disturbingly common in our current atmosphere,” he said.
According to Friedland, anti-Semitic incidents at the K-12th grade level are currently up 97 percent. “That’s why we do the programming we do,” he said.
Details were not publicly available about any actions taken against the Hall students, but Jackson said she feels the administration’s response was appropriate.
“Of course I’m upset because it was so rude and so mean,” she said. “But now the majority of me feels empowered, taking this thing that happened to me and spreading awareness.”
Jackson said she thought that it’s 2018, and everyone should be, and should feel accepted. “This occurrence really made me realize that our world needs to be more aware.”
Yesterday she was angry. “My dad said it’s okay to be angry but I need to use that anger for change, use that to raise awareness and bring about change,” said Jackson.
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