San Dieguito board talks next steps in addressing Hitler photo at Carmel Valley school
District will hold community forums, staff training around antisemitism and create a new superintendent committee
The Jewish community in the San Dieguito Union High School District is speaking up after a picture of Hitler was posted in a seventh-grade social studies classroom at Carmel Valley Middle School, alongside world leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill.
Members of Partners for Equality and Educational Responsibility (PEER K12) rallied outside of the board’s meeting on Oct. 13 demanding meaningful action against antisemitism: “We want action, not words,” said parent Tamar Caspi, echoing the message on many of their protest signs.
On the agenda that night was the district’s response to the incident: A commitment to “repairing the hurt by holding ourselves accountable” and creating a safe-school culture. The district plans to organize several listening and learning sessions across the district to hear from a broad group of parents, students and Jewish leaders about what the community needs; to provide additional anti-bias training for faculty and staff specifically around antisemitism; and to form a new superintendent’s committee focused on prevention and awareness.
The board will determine the makeup and focus of the superintendent committee at its November meeting.
The next steps for this new committee were debated at length, whether to form a committee immediately as SDUHSD President Mo Muir and Vice President Michael Allman advocated for, or to first go to the community and experts and then form a committee, as preferred by Trustees Katrina Young and Julie Bronstein. Before they could give direction, outbursts from the audience forced the board take a recess a little after 10 p.m., over five hours into that night’s meeting.
Bronstein felt it was premature to establish the committee that night as she wanted to gather more information and make sure the committee is done with purpose and is well-defined based on best practices.
“We have a community that’s hurting right now, they want to be listened to,” Young said, noting that the community’s input should steer the agenda for the committee if they truly want to put action behind words.
Both Muir and Allman were frustrated at the lack of action that night, what they felt was “kicking the can down the road”. While the committee will be determined next month, the board agreed to start this week with Bronstein and Allman meeting with Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Bryan Marcus about the goals for this committee.
“It’s a start,” Allman said. “We just have to start.”
“It tells our parents that we do hear you,” Muir said. “I’m here for action, I’m done with the talking.”
Parent Roy David said it was his 12-year-old son who raised the alarm about the portrait of Hitler on the wall of his classroom. He criticized the school principal for making excuses for the teacher and for failing to quickly take meaningful action.
“Any school teacher in America who hangs Hitler on the wall is not fit to teach and should be fired,” said David. “Any history teacher who thinks the most teachable aspect of Hitler is that he had strong leadership abilities is not fit to teach.”
Parents said the district botched the response, that there was a lack of action and accountability and that an apology should have been made to the student and his parents.
At the meeting, Torrey Pines High School junior Noa Klaristenfeld shared her own personal experiences with antisemitism at school which has included comments about her faith, students making Holocaust jokes to “try to be edgy”, and swastikas drawn on the bathroom walls on her campus last year.
“That ignorance hurts,” she said.
She believes the ignorance stems from a lack of education surrounding the history of minority groups. She said in the eighth grade when her class read “The Book Thief”, a book about a German teen during World War II, she was shocked that many of her classmates weren’t even aware of the Holocaust.
“To me and to many others this is not something that happened a long time ago,” Noa said. “People lack the understanding to express empathy and here we have the opportunity to introduce more knowledge that will foster understanding.”
Speakers said that the antisemitic graffiti, symbols of hate that children feel comfortable using, are a clear sign that there needs to be specific education on antisemitism. As one parent pointed out, the April 2019 shooting in a Poway synagogue was perpetrated by a 19-year-old raised in San Diego in the 21st century, not Germany in the 1930s.
“Hate can grow bigger than we think,” said parent Keren Benmosh. “We need to build a society that is more committed to the value of human dignity.”
As a Jewish woman who has been active in her synagogue and Jewish causes throughout her life, Trustee Bronstein said she stands in solidarity with all of the members of the Jewish community. She has family members and friends who were personally impacted by the Holocaust and she was deeply troubled when she heard about the situation, immediately reaching out to hear what actions the school had taken.
“I’m strongly opposed to the display of any Nazi-related material in our classrooms… zero tolerance for that,” Bronstein said.
Interim Superintendent Tina Douglas said the district takes these matters seriously: The incident has been investigated and addressed, but as it is a personnel issue and a confidential matter, there were no more details she could share publicly.
Over the past week, Muir, Bronstein and Douglas met with representatives from Congregation Beth Israel, Temple Beth Am, The Jewish Federation of San Diego County, The Shoah Foundation based in Los Angeles, the Anti-Defamation League San Diego and have spoken with many parents. Bronstein said they were counseled on addressing systemic issues of bias and antisemitism.
“I will continue to work to ensure our teachers receive education and the anti-bias training needed so all Jewish and marginalized students find all schools to be welcoming and safe environments,” Bronstein said.
With the committee, Allman was hoping for a group that has real power, to come up with actions and recommendations on accountability and oversight, alternative training for staff, as well as more curriculum transparency—he said many members of the Jewish community want to know how the Holocaust is being taught.
He also wanted to determine what happened at Carmel Valley Middle School—he said it was troubling that the picture had been up since the first day of school and no one else ever questioned it. He wanted to understand the lesson that was going to be taught, as per the teacher’s website her class covers geography and history only up to 1914.
“It was very disappointing what happened and I think we need to accomplish a number of things so we can make real and lasting change,” Allman said.
An area where the board did have some slight consensus was for an ombudsman—a district-level position that would be responsible for investigating and addressing allegations of discrimination and harassment.
Last year, 250 Jewish students signed a letter to the board asking them to show support with a resolution addressing antisemitism after experiencing a rise in antisemitic acts, being blindsided by standardized testing during Rosh Hashanah and experiencing anti-Israel and anti-Zionism rhetoric in the classroom. In November 2021, the board passed Allman’s resolution addressing antisemitism and affirming the value of Jewish students, faculty, staff and families in a 4-0 vote (Young abstained as she said she needed more information and wanted more student and community voices to be considered for the language).
“We had specific actions in the antisemitism resolution we passed…and they just didn’t happen,” Allman said.
Allman said had there been an ombudsman, the parent might have felt like he had an advocate at the district and that could’ve prevented him from feeling that his best course of action was to give a media interview.
As far as curriculum transparency, Bronstein pointed out that the district has a Parent Curriculum Advisory Committee, which provides a deeper understanding of curricular offerings instruction and professional development. Additionally, course profiles and materials are also online for every school’s courses and parents have access to google classrooms.
In his comments, Assistant Superintendent Marcus thanked the student for coming forward.
“If we don’t encourage our students to acknowledge that something is not right in the classroom, then we can’t learn and we can’t grow,” Marcus said. “Just like our students in the classroom, we never stop learning and we never stop growing…All of us need to humble ourselves ….acknowledging that things happen and we need to learn from them.”
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