NEWTON — A third incident of anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a bathroom wall at a Newton middle school last week, as controversy swirled around the principal’s handling of the first two incidents earlier in the school year.
A letter about the latest incident — in which “Burn the Jews” was again scrawled on the wall of a boys’ bathroom at the F.A. Day Middle School — went out to parents over the weekend, something that didn’t happen the first time those words were found at the school in October.
That incident and another in which a swastika was imprinted in the snow outside the school were made public only after an anonymous letter containing photographs was delivered to city officials and the Anti-Defamation League three weeks ago.
On Wednesday night, about 75 parents gathered in the school’s auditorium to hear why those first two incidents were never reported to police, school administrators, or parents, and how Principal Brian Turner could make the decision to keep them quiet.
Superintendent David Fleishman made no excuses for Turner, who then told parents quite clearly that he made a mistake.
“In responding to the first two incidents, my big mistake was not promptly and publicly communicating about these incidents with the police, the superintendent, teachers, students, and parents,” Turner said.
“During the last three weeks my integrity’s been questioned, some people feel I’ve been insensitive to anti-Semitism, some people think I’ve lied, and others think that my explanations about the school’s response have been defensive and disingenuous. And for all of this I apologize,” he said.
For some parents, the apology isn’t enough.
“Do you understand the damage that has been done to our children?” Rich Gopen asked Turner from the audience. “Have you asked yourself why you buried this?”
“I should have gone to police,” Turner responded.
And, Turner said, he initially thought the words were too hurtful to be repeated and publicized.
“In order to confront hate you need to mouth those words,” Gopen told Turner.
Some parents in the audience called on Turner to resign, or be dismissed.
Turner repeatedly acknowledged that he has lost the community’s faith and confidence, and said he is working to rebuild trust. “Actions are clearly going to speak louder than words,” he said.
Fleishman said the schools are working with the Anti-Defamation League to educate faculty and students. The superintendent said he will ensure that the protocol requiring all incidents of hate speech to be reported to police and the administration is understood and followed.
“Our core values have been violated, and that’s not something we accept or tolerate,” Fleishman said.
Robert Trestan, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told parents that it’s important not to judge Newton based on these hateful events. “These things happen all over the country, our community is not immune,” he said.
He also said it is unrealistic to think that they will not happen again. “It is important not to judge whether it happens, but what is the reaction when it does,” he said.
Many parents were rattled by the events. One woman spoke of the fear she feels sending her only two children to Day in the wake of the incidents, not feeling sure the administration has a specific plan in place to keep them safe.
Another father echoed those sentiments. “If someone can write that, how might they act out?” Lawrence Michel asked. “I’m really concerned, and I’m not sure you understand how serious this is. It’s very frightening for me to think about how this was handled.”
While it was clear from parents’ questions that they were uniformly unhappy with Turner’s response to the incidents, and that some are fearful for their children’s safety in an environment where such hateful words could be written, many are ready to move forward.
Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom, who said he has many congregants with children at the Day school, spoke last.
“We live in a crazy, very complicated world where there is a lot of hate,” he said. “I don’t think we have a school system or a community that tolerates hate.”
He said the schools need to respond to what has happened, and the Anti-Defamation League is the best organization to lead the education process.
After the meeting, he said had spoken by phone with Turner last week.
“He owned his mistake,” Gurvis said. “The guy’s heart is broken. He does get it.”
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.