by Martha Schick, Advocate staff, May 19, 2017
Milton – After two instances of swastika graffiti at a local middle school, the larger community here is making the effort to pull together for a unified response.
In December, the graffiti was found in multiple boys’ bathrooms in Pierce Middle School. The same thing happened again in March, though the two incidents do not appear related, according to Principal Karen Spaulding. The students were caught and “held accountable,” Spaulding said. However, the school and wider community decided to take it a step further by developing a town-wide program meant to engage young people and their parents on issues of hatred.
Rabbi Alfred Benjamin of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Blue Hills here is quick to point out that the program focuses on hatred in general, since he declines to characterize the swastika graffiti as anti-Semitic.
“[Swastikas are] the issue du jour,” Rabbi Benjamin said. “It’s what will get adults moving.
“Still, you can’t let an act like this go, regardless of the motivation,” he continued.
“Generally speaking, 11-to-14-year-olds make decisions based on a variety of reasons, for better or worse,” Spaulding said. “Quite often, the motivation for those decisions is not the same as it would be if they were adults.”
Not wanting to limit the response to in-school lessons, Rabbi Benjamin and Spaulding began in March to design a program to engage parents and students at home.
“We want every family in Milton to sit down and have a conversation with their child about these issues: mutual respect and how do you handle when somebody says something bigoted towards another person,” Rabbi Benjamin said. “We wanted parents to have that age appropriate conversation in the home.”
They reached out to the Anti-Defamation League New England for materials, but Spaulding said the organization had “nothing that we were envisioning.”
Using materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program and some ADL resources, Rabbi Benjamin and Spaulding spearheaded, “It’s Time to Talk about Hate: A Family Centered Initiative.”
The program consists of three age appropriate guides: preschool, elementary/pre-teen and teen. All include four sections: recommendations for getting started, voices from the field, conversation starters/activities and tips for parents.
“[The curriculum] will not only serve to prompt a conversation, but lay down some groundwork and educate for the long run,” Spaulding said.
The Milton superintendent of schools distributed the materials via email to all families with children in the town, including those who attend religious and private schools; the town is encouraging everyone to participate.
“It’s not a religious document; it’s about being a decent human being and helping teach our children how to be decent human beings,” Rabbi Benjamin explained. “It means a lot when the non-Jewish community is outraged, and that’s the culture of this town.”
Spaulding and Rabbi Benjamin shared the curriculum with ADL New England and SPLC, in the hopes that it could help other communities facing similar challenges. An employee at SPLC told Spaulding that she would share it with her colleagues, while the person they contacted at ADL was not immediately available to look over the material, Spaulding said.
“People now will have something to use if they think it’s worthwhile,” Rabbi Benjamin said. “They won’t have to reinvent the wheel.”