READING — Nearly every day, teachers at Reading Memorial High School scan their classrooms carefully, sweeping their eyes across floors and furniture — in search of swastikas.
In this school of more than 1,200 students, the Nazi symbol and other racist graffiti have become a haunting presence, surfacing again and again, defacing bathroom stalls and stairwells, scrawled on bench legs, carved into railings around the high school.
Reading police have been investigating for months, reviewing camera footage and interviewing potential witnesses. But there are still no suspects in the more than 30 incidents reported in Reading since May 2017, according to school officials. Most have occurred at the high school, but a handful have been reported at local middle schools. A swastika was also found drawn in red ink on furniture at the town library in October 2017.
“It’s definitely harder to focus in school,” said senior Maddy Liberman, 17, who is Jewish. “I’m sort of always thinking in the back of my mind, ‘Who would care about me, and who wouldn’t care, and who is even further down from that — who would hate me?’ ”
The incidents come amid a rise in hate crimes nationally and in Massachusetts. The FBI reported Tuesday that in 2017 hate crimes jumped 17 percent nationwide over the previous year. The number of incidents in Massachusetts was up 9 percent over the same period.
In June, the words “Gas the Jews” were found written on a brick inside a vestibule in the lobby of Parker Middle School in Reading. Two days before Halloween, a high school student found slurs threatening the LGBTQ community, according to a letter the school e-mailed to parents. Soon after, a high school student and a staff member discovered racist slurs targeting black people in a stairwell and a bathroom. The following week, two more swastikas as well as graffiti threatening “white people” were found in a high school bathroom.
The threats and slurs discovered aren’t limited to schools in Reading. In the past few days at Hemenway Elementary School in Framingham, two offensive letters were found in a Muslim student’s storage bin. One note called the 10-year-old fifth-grader a “terrorist.” The other threatened her life. At Malden High School, a swastika was found etched in an elevator on Nov. 5 . Swastikas were found inside bathrooms at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School around the same time.
Reading Superintendent John Doherty said administrators are taking the incidents “as seriously as possible.”
“We’re going to continue to investigate. We’re going to continue to educate . . . students need to be a part of the solution to speak up and tell people how they feel and also if they see something to let us know,” he said.
This fall, school and town officials joined with a grass-roots organization of residents and clergy called “Reading Embraces Diversity,” holding a rally against anti-Semitism last month. The high school held a vigil a week after a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 people dead. On Tuesday night, a handful of parents and students gathered at the Reading Select Board meeting to discuss how to address the hateful words and symbols.
“I think [rallies and vigils] are a great start to trying to find a solution,” said sophomore Bridget Parks, 15, who was not at the meeting. “We definitely haven’t reached one yet — seeing as things are happening. It’s not changing.”
The high school has also sponsored training by the Anti-Defamation League, brought Holocaust survivor and child psychiatrist Dr. Anna Ornstein to speak, added lessons to the curriculum, and formed an equity and diversity committee.
Meanwhile, students at the high school are now required to sign out whenever they leave the classroom and sign in on their return.
“I’ve never been actually nervous, but after Pittsburgh, everybody is rethinking their safety and security,” said Rebecca Liberman, Maddy’s mother. “I do believe there would be an outswell of opposition to this behavior if people were aware of it. But if you didn’t have kids in the schools, I’m not sure you would know.”
On Facebook, area residents have debated how much attention should be brought to the incidents. On the Reading Patch website, William C. Brown wrote a letter to the editor on Nov. 6 warning against suppressing freedom of speech.
“Racial slurs, anti-Semitic or calling someone a ‘f**’ no matter how offensive or repulsive it may be is FREEDOM of SPEECH guaranteed by the FIRST AMENDMENT of the CONSTITUTION of the UNITED STATES,” he wrote.
At Tuesday’s select board meeting, Brown, 88, disturbed many in the room by saying that he would exercise “his Second Amendment right” if anyone tried to take away his first. After he made the comment, one woman with children immediately left the meeting.
Several people spoke out in response to Brown’s statements.
“Sir, I totally agree it is your right to hate anyone you love to hate,” said Boston resident Sherilla Lestrade, 42, who is black and whose 11-year-old son attends Parker Middle School. “But it is also other people’s right not to be discriminated against because of who they choose to love, what color they are, how they choose to praise whomever it is they praise or not praise.”
After the meeting, Brown said that he had been misunderstood. “I think I have the right by the First Amendment to say, ‘I hate you,’ ” Brown said. “Vandalism I do not condone at all, but do not take my First Amendment rights.”
In recent weeks, officials have emphasized the seriousness of the racist incidents and warned residents not to shrug them off.
“Perhaps some residents — of all ages — view these actions as pranks?” wrote Reading Town Manager Bob LeLacheur in a press release Oct. 30. “Let me be clear — these are acts of hate.”
This is principal Kate Boynton’s first year at Reading Memorial High School, but not her first time dealing with racist graffiti. She confronted nearly identical issues during her first of six years as assistant principal at Bedford High School. Boynton has a background in conflict resolution, and she and her staff held voluntary small and large group discussions at Reading Memorial High School on Nov. 7.
“It’s something important to me as a person to stand up for the rights of my students, of my teachers,” Boynton said. “So while it’s been frustrating naturally and disheartening, I embrace the challenge because it’s the right and important thing to do.”
At the discussion, she listened as a diverse group of 50 students shared thoughts on racism and anti-Semitism. Some didn’t think the vandalism was a big deal; others feared being targeted.
“What came out of most of the small group conversations was this ‘aha moment’ that, ‘Wow, what happens to one of us impacts all of us,’ ” Boynton said.
Among the suggested solutions were simple acts of kindness: Say hello in the morning to someone, check in on your peers, invite them to sit with you in the cafeteria. Senior Matteo Coelho, 18, attended the discussion and believes people must call out these incidents as they happen.
“If someone who is feeling marginalized walks into a bathroom and sees that and then reports it, and then hears nothing from the administration, it’s extremely disheartening and it doesn’t make them feel safe,” said Coelho. “What we’re doing is making sure we tell kids we have their back.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.