Lexi Olander, 13, practices reform Judaism at a synagogue in Newton. She is also an eighth grader at Weston Middle School, where multiple incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti have occurred.
Weston is not alone in this statistic—the Commonwealth has one of the highest rates of reported hate crime incidents.
In September, two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were reported at Needham High School. Farther south, multiple underaged teenagers were arrested in Hull for leaving racist and anti-Semitic graffiti tags in a park. In October, Arlington middle schoolers tagged anti-Semitic graffiti in their school bathroom. These incidents are only those that have been reported by schools and the media; most incidents of hate crimes are never reported.
Anti-Semitism is one of the more prominently reported cases of bias within Massachusetts schools, and Olander represents a younger population of bias victims. Last school year, a swastika was carved into a plastic dispenser in the Weston Middle School boy’s bathroom. This incident occurred during the school’s Anne Frank curriculum, and after the eighth graders had finished a section on World War II. Olander recalls at least two incidents happening at her middle school and one anti-Semitic incident that happened at the adjacent high school building.
“Our vice principal had a meeting about it every time it happened,” she said. “After a while it just got to be routine.”
During one of these routine meetings, John Gibbons, Weston middle school’s principal, walked in with a manila folder. He opened the folder to reveal an image of a swastika.
Following the graffiti incidents, Olander says she had a nightmare in which an unidentifiable Nazi dressed in a poncho with a swastika displayed on his front and back entered her synagogue. In terror, Olander grabbed her younger brother and booked it, running through Newton. It was just a dream, but the paranoia of it reflects reality for Olander and others.
“Victims of crimes that are bias-motivated are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, safety concerns, depression, anxiety and anger than victims of crimes that are not motivated by bias,” according to the American Psychological Association.
Olander says these impactful incidents occurred around the time she was finding her young adult Jewish identity, marked by her bat mitzvah. With members of her synagogue, Olander traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, this October; the trip was a reflective time for her, as she realized the full effect of the hate in her school. A photo of decomposing bodies set off Olander’s emotions.
“It just kind of hit me and I started crying,” she says. Up until that point, she’d written off the anti-Semitic graffiti as silly pranks, but the emotional history of the Holocaust and the related suffering was a learning experience for the middle-schooler.
“I’m scared,” Olander said. “I’ve been thinking, there’s not going to be another Holocaust, right? I have anxiety, so things kind of go to the extreme sometimes, but I shouldn’t have to think about those things.”
Olander doesn’t talk about anti-Semitism with her friends or family. “I feel like it’s an uncomfortable subject that we really only talk about in temple, because we are forced to talk about it,” she said. “But it feels good to talk about it.”
In response to a 26% national increase in hate crimes in K-12 schools and colleges, state Sen. Michael Moore is attempting to spur a more prominent discussion about hate crimes in public schools. He proposed a bill, an act establishing a hate crimes grant program, that could provide grant money to schools in an attempt to mitigate hate and bias through education.
“You see what’s going on nationally and what’s going on in our schools,” Moore said. “We have to try to be corrective about this.”
Moore’s bill is still pending before the Joint Committee on Education. In the meantime, the senator’s Deputy General Counsel Zachary S. Tsetsos noted: “the Fiscal Year 2019 supplemental state budget approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Baker earlier this month … includes $400,000 to help curb bias incidents and hate crimes in public schools across the Commonwealth. In particular, the funding will support a grant program for the education and prevention of hate crimes and incidences of bias in public schools.”
Aaron Agulnek, the director of government affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council, has worked tightly with Moore and others on legislation related to anti-hate education.
“Over the course of the last couple years, the JCRC has been hyperfocused on issues of anti-Semitism, nationalism, white supremacy, and how all those issues interplay with each other,” Agulnek said. “What can we be doing about these incidents that happen at schools? We work with organizations representing different religions, ethnicities, etc. … Legislation like this [Sen. Moore’s bill] is not limited by any means to anti-Semitism.”
Olander’s mother, Sky, believes such efforts are a step in the right direction against the rampant racism in public schools.
“I wish that schools were more open with the parents in the community about what’s going on,” she says. “Maybe parents don’t realize that this is happening. The school sent out an email, and they told parents what happened, and they said that they were going to investigate, but they never followed up.
“They never told us what happened as a result of the investigation.”