Swastika at school shows tensions in new Trump era

President Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump.

The student made the swastika out of tape on a piece of paper and propped it against a recycling bin in a Stoughton High School classroom just before Thanksgiving.

What happened next underscores the difficult terrain educators face as they confront the increase in racist and anti-Semitic incidents since the November election.

Three teachers, frustrated by a lack of clear guidelines for dealing with such a sensitive issue, responded in sharply different ways. One talked about the swastika in class. Another spoke to a student about it. And a third withdrew a college recommendation for the student who created the swastika.


But in the end, the teachers themselves, as well as some students, were disciplined.

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Heightened tensions are forcing teachers and administrators to grapple with abhorrent actions few say they are prepared to confront. Students who mimic the behavior or speech of President Trump, particularly his rhetoric from the divisive campaign, may violate a school district’s or state’s antibullying laws. Parents from differing political perspectives may have competing views about what constitutes acceptable speech or behavior.

And teachers often lack guidelines for addressing these volatile situations, said Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in educational ethics.

“There is no one, clear, right answer for what to do,” said Levinson, who is a former middle school teacher in the Atlanta and Boston public schools.

“How we deal with something we read as hate or bullying — although we often see that as the only question — that’s only the first question,” Levinson said. “So much of this is how do we deal with people’s competing responses to the same incident, without having them snowball into further incidents.”


Levinson and a team of graduate students recently launched teaching guides that use case studies — contentious situations school leaders have faced — to help teachers, parents, and administrators consider different perspectives and discuss ways a school might approach situations.

The presidential election has had a profoundly negative effect on some schools and students, according to a recent nationwide survey of more than 10,000 educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama organization that tracks hate and bias incidents. The poll, while not scientific, is believed to be the largest survey of educators about the election.

Two-thirds of those surveyed reported that administrators have been “responsive,” but four out of 10 don’t believe their schools have adequate action plans to respond to incidents of hate and bias.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press/File

Half of those surveyed said they were hesitant to discuss the election in class because of heightened emotions. Some principals have told teachers to refrain from discussing or addressing the election in any way, the center found.

In Stoughton, several high school teachers urged administrators to speak out after the swastika incident in late November, according to the Stoughton Teachers Association. A girl, who is Jewish and who witnessed the incident, had asked the boy to remove the swastika. He did, but made an offensive remark.


The teachers asked administrators to send a letter home to parents explaining what happened, similar to the action taken in nearby Milton after several swastikas were discovered in the bathrooms of a middle school in December.

“By not discussing this with the entire community, parents were denied an opportunity to discuss this at the dinner table with their kids,” said John Gunning, Stoughton Teachers Association president.

Frustrated by the inaction, the teachers took matters into their own hands.

The two teachers who spoke about the incident with students received letters of reprimand in their files, and the teacher who rescinded her letter of recommendation for the student who had made the swastika was suspended for 20 days without pay. She began serving that suspension Thursday, according to the union.

But administrators continued to remain mum, despite a statement by the union at a school committee meeting Tuesday and repeated inquiries from the Globe.

On Friday, Stoughton’s superintendent, Marguerite Rizzi, who told the school committee Tuesday that she was unaware of more than one incident involving a swastika in her school, sent a two-page e-mail to parents describing two incidents.

In the second instance, which also occurred in late November, an image of a swastika was prominently displayed in a group chat involving several students on their phones.

The statement said that students involved in both incidents were disciplined but makes no mention of actions taken against teachers.

Rizzi’s statement said police had been consulted and it was determined the actions were not hate crimes or hate speech.

“We at the Stoughton Public Schools are all committed to eradicating hate speech, and have no tolerance for racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or any other kind of bigotry or discrimination,” the statement said.

Rizzi chastised, but did not name, people whom she said were inaccurately portraying the incidents, and said that created a lost opportunity “to teach our children . . . the importance of forgiveness.”

She also said the Anti-Defamation League came to the school Thursday for a training session “to help us refocus on the aims of strengthening our safe, tolerant, peaceful, and thriving diverse community.”

But one parent who saw a swastika on her son’s phone in late November during the student group chat was horrified he had participated in that chat, and upset that school leaders did not act sooner. The woman asked that her name not be used because she is worried her son will face retaliation.

“I grabbed my son and said, ‘Honey, what’s going on?’ He said they took it down, it’s just a joke. And I said, ‘This is not OK. It’s not a joke,’ ” she said.

The woman said her 17-year-old son is not biased or hateful. But she worries that he and his friends seem to have little understanding of the pain a swastika, long a powerful symbol of Nazi atrocities, evokes for so many.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” she said. “These kids just don’t realize the severity of it.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at