Swastikas etched on the bathroom walls, students doing Hitler salutes, pennies being thrown near Jewish students, and students telling Jewish people to “go back to the gas chambers.”
These are some of the antisemitic experiences that students, parents and teachers shared during the May 8 Cherry Creek School District Board of Education meeting.
“This is what is happening in the hallways of your schools,” said resident Rikki Mor. “Our kids do not feel safe. Our kids are scared to say they’re Jewish for fear of retaliation.”
“That is why we are here. This has to change,” she added.
Mor was among a crowded room of people who gathered at Cherokee Trail High School. Many described instances where students experienced antisemitism within Cherry Creek Schools and expressed feeling unsafe.
When Emily, a student at Campus Middle School, took the microphone, she described a time when another student said his brother and his friend “told a Jewish kid to go back to the gas chambers.”
Being Jewish herself, Emily said it really affected her and she asked why that was even said and why the boy was sharing it. In response, the boy said it did not even matter, she recalled.
“And that’s where he was wrong,” she said, explaining she has relatives who were in the Holocaust. “So I spoke up once again, and I said, ‘Actually it does matter because I’m Jewish and people shouldn’t be saying anything like that.’”
“He opened his mouth and said, ‘Ew, then you should go back to the gas chambers, too,’” she recalled. “This left me scared to go back to school every single day from that point forward.”
The stories came a week after the principal of Campus Middle School, Lissa Staal, sent a letter to families informing them the school received reports of students drawing swastikas following the school’s Holocaust presentation on April 28.
“This creates an unacceptable environment of intolerance and exclusion in our school community. When these events are reported to the administration, we address them immediately and those involved face disciplinary consequences,” Staal wrote.
It was not mentioned in Staal’s letter how many students were involved or what disciplinary consequences the students faced.
Lauren Snell, a public information officer for Cherry Creek Schools, said May 8 via email that due to privacy protections for students, she cannot go into details about student discipline.
“As soon as the school learned about the antisemitic drawings over the weekend, administrators investigated and took immediate action. Any student found to be involved will face disciplinary consequences,” Snell wrote.
During the board meeting, Superintendent Christopher Smith addressed the incident and said students were drawing swastikas on other students.
“Administrators investigated the incident and took immediate action. Multiple students are facing disciplinary action and any other students found to be involved will also face disciplinary consequences,” Smith said. “We do not tolerate hate in this district of any kind against any group.”
Not an isolated incident
After Mor learned about the incident, she posted about it on her Facebook page on April 29.
Then, she created an online letter to Smith that, according to the letter, has been signed by more than 250 people.
In the letter, she wrote, “What shocked me more than this incident was that when I posted about it on my Facebook page, it took less than 24 hours for over SIXTY families from the district to write me and say that they not only support everything I said but over one-third of them have had anti-Semitic incidents occur at the middle school and high school level THIS YEAR alone.”
For example, she said a family told her the antisemitism and harassment is so constant that the mom has told her children not to tell anyone they are Jewish.
Mor said in the letter that the community would like to discuss constructing a committee specifically to address the issue of antisemitism in the district, building a protocol on how schools will address these issues in the future and providing lessons to students and teachers alike about modern day antisemitism.
“We want real conversations and we'd like to meet with you to see how the district can do better and be better,” Mor wrote. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents did not die in concentration camps, or by the grace of GD, survive them so that a mere 75 years later, their descendants would have to be scared to say they are Jewish.”
Superintendent: ‘I’m sorry’
Before the public comment portion of the board meeting, several members of the school board took a moment to discuss the Campus Middle School incident and reiterated hate will not be tolerated.
As part of his comments, Smith said he wanted to recognize that May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month.
“And it saddens me and disappoints me and frustrates me that my comments tonight are around hate,” Smith said. “And I want to share tonight that I am not naive to think that this only happens at Campus. I know that students are micro-aggressed across this district.”
“Also, I received comments from the lived experiences of our students here tonight. I want to say, as the leader of this district, I’m sorry. I’m absolutely sorry that these are the things that happened to you in our district,” Smith said.
He said he is committed to making the school district better and asked that the work be a partnership between the school district and the community.
“I would like to thank the parents who showed up in my office today to help me get better, to be a better leader in this district,” he said. “And again, I’d just like to say thank you for being here this evening.”
Rise in antisemitic incidents
In her email, Snell said the school has met with the Anti-Defamation League and administrators have “addressed the recent behaviors with eighth-grade classrooms and reinforced expectations with students.”
Scott Levin, the mountain states regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, was among those who gave a public comment at the board meeting.
He said he was proud of the community for showing up and talking about the consequences of antisemitism, especially to the students.
“We measured last year 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the United States, an increase of 36%,” Levin said, referring to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2022 audit of antisemitic incidents.
According to the report, 494 antisemitic incidents happened at non-Jewish K-12 schools in 2022, representing an increase of 49% from 2021.
“But what I’m really getting (at) … is how little we know. How little we measure,” Levin said. “So what I’m going to ask you is, let’s think a little more proactively.”
“Talking about changing the culture and climate, it can’t always be after the antisemitic incidents take place,” he added.
He said it is important to work ahead of time and to include the school board, the educators and the students.
“Let’s try and take a more holistic approach,” Levin said. “Our mission is not only to stop antisemitism, but also to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”