Todd L. Pittinsky
Todd L. Pittinsky

Educate, don’t erase

Last week, the playground at the Setauket Elementary School in the storied Three Village Central School District on Long Island, New York was vandalized by anti-Semitic graffiti. The police were contacted, the graffiti was quickly cleaned up, and parents were informed that the school district “does not condone the use or promotion of hateful messages or references.”

Is that enough? Schools, it so happens, are not only the targets of hate crimes, but also one of the sources. In the case of the anti-Semitic hate crime, an investigation is underway, it appears two students in the district may be responsible. This is not uncommon — according to the FBI’s 2018 statistics, juveniles committed about one in seven of the reported hate crimes.

The police can do the policing, but schools must do more educating. Otherwise, we are just addressing the crime in hate crimes — not the hate. Most school administrators would likely rather have a root canal than draw attention to such incidents at their own school, but that’s exactly what they need to do. “Yes, folks, it happened here. It might even have been one of us.” Yet think of the future individual suffering and institutional damage that could be avoided.

Perhaps the school’s clean-up, done by maintenance staff, should not have been done out of sight by the community but rather by Three Village residents and the students themselves. It was an attack on their community, their values, and their space. In fact, it’s likely that very few students ever saw the graffiti and therefore have little sense that it really happened, never mind of how hateful it was. Protecting the students from seeing the hate also prevented them from understanding its power and from experiencing their own power to do something about it.

What’s more, acts like that typically don’t come out of nowhere. If someone writes “Gas the Jews” on a wall, he or she learned it from someone else — very likely in their own family or peer group. An act like that is therefore  a wake-up call that reveals tension in the community. But alarms only work if you hear them. What Three Villages did — and it’s entirely typical — is hit the snooze button and hope it never goes off again

There are more constructive paths forward. In Cayuga County, New York, students and adults came to together to plant a sapling from “the Anne Frank tree” on their school campus — the horse chestnut that she could see from the attic in which she and her family were hiding and which served her as a profound symbol of hope. “We’re just a little school district that nobody knows,” the teacher who spearheaded the project noted, “and we’ve got something that is really special.” For the students, he observed, it has become a source of pride.

Schools must use hate incidents as an opportunity for citizenship education by matching the act of hatred with one of unity, not just a criminal investigation. I am reminded of an incident in  Michigan when co-owners of a restaurant, bar, and community gathering place frequented by many gay patrons learned that their business was going to be the target of aggressive anti-gay demonstrations. Rather than organizing a counter demonstration, these men initiated a quick email campaign, and invited people from across the community — all sexual orientations — to pledge any amount they wished for each minute the demonstration lasted. The longer the hate-filled demonstration, the more money was raised for a local community center.  They seemed to have understood intuitively that leadership in such cases is leading toward more ambitious community, instead of trying to fight hate to a draw, and instead of simply trying to erase hate.

Schools are so worried about bias that they often fail to realize that they offer an ideal environment in which to counter bias. Despite the media focus on the pressure on kids to “fit in,” most children actually tend to be curious about difference and people who are different. They notice it, they’re interested in it, they are naturally curious about difference.

When we clean up hate crimes too quickly — when we try to erase them to protect the children — whose children are we protecting? Not the ones who have to live in this world and need to know their own individual and collective powers to counteract the hate that’s in it.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. His most recent book is "Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy" (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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