Metro

Newton principal failed to report anti-Semitic graffiti

Newton officials are investigating two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti at one of the city’s middle schools after receiving an anonymous letter with photographs of an offensive phrase left in a boys bathroom and a swastika imprinted in snow.

The incidents occurred in October and January at the F. A. Day Middle School, but principal Brian Turner failed to report them to authorities at the time they occurred, as stipulated in a memorandum of understanding between the School Department and Newton Police Department.

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In a letter to Day School families last week, Turner apologized “for not promptly and publicly notifying the school community about these unacceptable actions.”

“My initial response to these incidents did not convey the moral outrage I felt at this violation of our core values,” read the letter, dated Feb. 25.

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Turner will host a community forum on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the library at the Day School to address the incidents and their aftermath. In addition, the next Parent-Principal Coffee at the school Friday at 8 a.m. will also be devoted to discussing the incidents.

School Superintendent David Fleishman said the first he heard of the two incidents at the Day School was last month, after the anonymous letter arrived by mail Feb. 22 to City Hall, School Committee members, and the Anti-Defamation League.

The letter included photographs of the hateful graffiti and the swastika.

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“Things happen, and they are not always made public,” Fleishman said. “But it is important to go to the police.”

And, he said, it is important that students and the community understand these kinds of incidents will not be tolerated.

“We don’t tolerate this because it causes pain, and it represents hate,” Fleishman said.

The memorandum of understanding between the schools and police clearly stipulates that both sides have agreed to share information in order to prevent violence and the use, abuse, and distribution of alcohol; and to “promote a safe and nurturing environment” in the schools. And, specifically, the memorandum lists “any incident of actual or suspected hate crime” as a mandatory reportable offense.

According to police reports, “Burn the Jews” was found written on the wall of a second-floor boys bathroom in October, and a swastika was found imprinted in the snow just off school property in January. Police Lieutenant Bruce M. Apotheker said the department is conducting an investigation.

In addition, Fleishman said his department is conducting a full investigation into exactly what took place in the aftermath of the incidents.

“We have a responsibility to find out what happened,” Fleishman said.

Fleishman would not answer questions about whether Turner is facing any disciplinary action for not following guidelines stipulated in the memorandum of understanding with police, saying it is a personnel matter.

School Committee chairman Matt Hills said any decision about possible discipline is entirely up to school administrators, but said Turner has a six-year record of strong leadership at the Day School.

“There is an entire body of work that needs to be considered, not just one incident in a person’s career,” he said.

While school officials are conducting their own investigation of how the incidents were handled, they immediately turned to outside help for guidance on how to respond to students and the community about what was found.

“Right now, there is a need to rebuild confidence within the community,” said Robert Trestan, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “And we talked about the utmost importance of reporting these incidents to the police.”

Trestan said it is particularly important because a principal has no idea if what is found at their school is an isolated incident, or part of a pattern.

“What if that swastika was also found in the snow in two or three other locations? Those would be important facts, and we would want the police to know about it,” he said.

Trestan also said the students and parents need to know that if they see something and report it, something will be done.

He said there has been an increase in incidents at schools in the past year, but the ADL is not focusing on a reason for that increase.

“We know there will be incidents. It’s important that schools and communities are prepared to respond when they do happen,” Trestan said.

Fleishman said the department will use what happened at the Day School as a catalyst to review with faculty and staff the process and procedures to follow should another incident occur at any of the schools.

Fleishman said that according to Turner, these were the only two incidents of anti-Semitic or racist graffiti at the Day School during his tenure as far as he can remember.

Mayor Setti Warren said the anonymous letter came as a complete surprise.

“We will vigorously engage the community around this issue,” he said. “This action and behavior is completely unacceptable in our school system, and our city.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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