Over 100 parents, students and teachers attended a Feb. 10 forum on anti-Semitic bullying to question an expert panel put together days after a swastika was painted on a Roswell high school, rattling the north metro Jewish community.

Local school officials said at the Sandy Springs event they have “strict” punishments and protocols for bullying and harassment and encouraged students to report it immediately. And a state representative said he is hopeful this legislative session will bring the passage of a hate crimes bill that could help reduce such incidents.

“Anytime something comes up, you need to say something,” North Springs Charter High Principal Scott Hanson said at the event, which was held at Temple Emanu-El and attended by over 100 people. “That’s the most important thing. Don’t assume someone else is going to.”

Director of Georgia Commission on the Holocaust Sally Levine, center with microphone, answers an audience question at the Feb. 10 event about incidents in schools. Joining her are, from left, Centennial High School Assistant Principal Dr. Bre Peeler; North Springs Charter High School Principal Scott Hanson; DeKalb Department of Student Relations Director Dr. Quentin Fretwell; Fulton County School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Chris Matthews; Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Dr. Allison Padilla-Goodman; Marist School teacher Brendan Murphy; Georgia Bureau of Investigation Assistant Special Agent in Charge Andy Mossman; and state Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs). (Evelyn Andrews)

The panel, which also included representatives from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Anti-Defamation League, DeKalb County School District and a state representative, was held by the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism in response to a recent vandalism incident at Roswell’s Centennial High School. Among the vandalism there was graffiti of a swastika near the front entrance.

AIAAS was formed by Dunwoody-area mothers in 2017 “amidst what felt like an explosion of anti-Semitic events,” said Lauren Menis, on the founders, when introducing the panel. They have held two previous events that discussed the rising incidents.

AIAAS cites numbers from the FBI and ADL that say anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes targeting Jews are on the rise nationwide. Incidents at North Springs in 2017 included a swastika drawn on a bathroom wall.

To help deter these incidents, the AIAAS has been pushing for a state hate crimes legislation in partnership with the ADL. State Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs) said the legislation is expected to be filed this session with bipartisan support. He is hopeful this can be the year it passes.

The bill would create an additional sentence for crimes found to be against a protected class based on categories that often include race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability. Previous state hate crimes legislation has not gained serious traction or failed to pass, such as last year’s effort by former state Rep. Meagan Hanson (R-Brookhaven).

A sponsor to carry the bill has not been determined, McLaurin said. But he pledged that the legislation will be comprehensive and “not just a solution for one community.”

“We cannot have hate crimes legislation that’s not comprehensive,” McLaurin said, a comment that received applause.

The ADL regional director agreed that its “comprehensive or nothing.”

“We feel pretty good about it this year,” Allison Padilla-Goodman said.

School responses

Fulton Assistant Superintendent Chris Matthews said the district has a “strict” bullying and harassment policy laid out in the student code of conduct used when responding to incidents

“We send clear messaging with our discipline,” Matthews said in response to a student’s question about what is done following incidents.

But punishment also provides an opportunity for a teaching moment, Matthews said.

“There has to be a learning opportunity that goes along with that. They don’t fully understand the impact of the hurt that they’re causing,” he said.

Menis said that Hanson, the principal of North Springs, has been “amazing” at handling anti-Semitic incidents. Hanson said one piece of the response is having the student responsible visit with Hanson every morning to talk about how they are doing and build a relationship to “show that they can recover and grow from it.”

Something he runs into with every case is that people want more information about the punishment than he can give. People often ask for details to be released, but they can’t be shared with anyone not directly involved.

“Students have rights even if they did something horrible,” Hanson said. “At the end of the day they’re a kid, they’re a child.”

A parent of a student who said they had to move schools after severe bullying that went on for years without enough help from administration asked if there could be more security cameras to catch incidents.

Fulton is already installing high-definition cameras at schools, Hanson said. Many Sandy Springs middle and high schools have already had them installed as part of the first phase of the roll-out, he said. Hanson cited their effectiveness in a recent example of a student who was behind a bullying note being found quickly by reviewing footage.

“Our district has been very wonderful in providing us tools to help us with a lot of these things,” Hanson said.

In DeKalb, Dr. Quentin Fretwell, the director of the department of student relations, said the district is committed to not let bullying or harassment go unaddressed. There is a strict protocol in place to handle allegations of bullying, he said. Any student can bring the concern or allegation to any faculty member, who then fills out a form that goes to the principal. An investigation is launched immediately, Fretwell said.

Andy Mossman, an assistant special agent in charge at the GBI, encouraged the use of anonymous reporting phone apps to get information and start a dialogue.

“We’ve had a lot of success with apps,” Mossman said.

Preventing incidents

One tool to prevent anti-Semitic bullying incidents is early education on the Holocaust, said Sally Levine, the director of the state’s Commission on the Holocaust, which runs an exhibit in Sandy Springs.

All students begin the required lessons starting in fifth grade, Levine said. Students also learn about how misinformation spreads and the difference between fact and opinion, she said.

The lessons are not required at private schools, but many have created their own programs and worked in partnership with Holocaust commission, Levine said.

Brendan Murphy, a teacher at Marist, a Catholic school in Brookhaven, started a Holocaust seminar and has taken students on trips to former concentration camps.  He said starting a dialogue about hate incidents and giving students a chance to respond is important. Murphy invited students and teachers to send notes to students at Weber, a Jewish school in Sandy Springs, following the 2017 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Over 800 students and faculty members participated, he said.

“If we give our students the opportunity to stand up against hate, they’ll take it,” Murphy said. “But they have to be led in a way that’s appropriate.”