Kansas high school students have been disturbed by recent anti-Semitic messages, writes Eric Thomas. Image courtesy of Pixabay
By ERIC TOMMASOReflector courtesy of Kansas
Two cases of high school anti-Semitism have surfaced in eastern Kansas in recent weeks.
Instance at Blue Valley High School created the most headlines due to how flagrant and inconsiderate it was. Overland Park school administrators found their athletic stadium’s press box damaged on the eve of a party honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The vandals – all under the age of 20 – are accused of breaking windows, destroying equipment and painting racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs on the walls of the structure that sits atop the school bleachers. Four people have been charged, according to local media.
Student journalists at Lawrence High School reported and commented on the second set of incidents: a series of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in the school bathrooms.
Lawrence High School student reporter Jackson Green said the graffiti occurred at the end of the fall 2022 semester and has continued into the current semester. In one incident, a swastika about two feet tall and two feet wide appeared to be carved into the wall using a sharp object, according to Green.
(On a disclosure note: I am director of the Kansas Student Press Association and have helped students decide how to handle the story, particularly whether to publish the graffiti images.)
Green said he and a friend saw another swastika penciled in a bathroom. They reported it to a teacher, they photographed it and then deleted it.
“When you live in Lawrence, you kind of think you’re sheltered and protected from stuff like that,” Green said. “And sometimes you meet the hard realization that you are not. So it’s disappointing to have to see it. And it’s scary.
“We know these things can lead to violence. It’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Who did this? Why did they do it? And will they continue to do it or will they do something worse?”
Racist and anti-Semitic messages like these poison our schools. Many students attend school while distracted by fear of mass shootings, not to mention the targeted violence of hate crimes these messages suggest.
Vulnerable students should not be made more insecure.
Educators know that students cannot learn when they are afraid. When students fear guns, bullying, a teacher, or hate like these anti-Semitic images, they can’t focus on lessons on comma splicing, ecosystems, or verb conjugation. And they certainly can’t focus on the vital social lessons embedded in school. They cannot flourish.
Since these are both great high schools in Kansas, some might be tempted to criticize the schools themselves. But consider how, where and when these cases occurred.
Students raided the school grounds after hours to vandalize the press room. And students hid in the bathrooms at Lawrence High School, behind locked doors that protected them from administrators. (Student vandals in Lawrence have not been identified.)
What can a school do to prevent student fanaticism – cultivated during time away from school – from silently infecting its corridors?
Lawrence principal Jessica Bassett has an answer.
“Incidents like this demonstrate that we still have work to do to help students learn to respect each other, regardless of their differences,” Bassett wrote in an emailed statement. “I am hopeful of change as I watch our students and teachers actively work to develop a school campaign to combat hate.”
Bassett’s response shows dedication and belief in the power of schools. While I share this belief, I fear that students encounter hate messages so powerful and enticing that schools have only so much traction to combat them.
If a young person slips down YouTube’s rabbit hole of racist rhetoric, spending hours listening to anti-Semitic misinformation and Holocaust denial, how is a school going to combat it with the occasional training? Likewise, years of growing up in families ruled by bigoted stereotypes seem too powerful.
Add to these forces the influence of celebrity.
Green, who has covered racist graffiti in Lawrence’s restrooms, said written under a picture of a swastika was the word “Yeezy,” a reference to rapper Kanye West. Along with the message “I hate Jews,” the vandals wrote “Kanye was right.”
Last year, West’s comments about Jews drew widespread condemnation but also, in Green’s eyes, copycats.
“That’s when we started to notice the transition to more obnoxious things,” Green said. “So it all happened relatively quickly after she made those interview comments and the Twitter quote that we’ve all seen a ton of times. And that’s when it started, not long after.
Add to West’s ignorant comments the delusions of NBA star Kyrie Irving and the xenophobia of many in President Donald Trump’s orbit, and it’s no surprise that young people seem bitter and bigoted.
One suggested intervention that schools could consider? Communicate the presence of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric to his parents, students and community. Parents these days know how often schools communicate lockouts, drills, or security threats. We get text messages, emails, and app notifications.
While messages depicting hateful language aren’t that urgent, parents should hear about it.
Hesitation to share creates feelings of distrust for students like Green.
“It was very obvious he was trying to be hidden,” Green said of his school’s response to the early graffiti incidents. “And there was no discussion that came of it. For example, my parents didn’t know until I told them what I had seen and heard. So there’s not even any acknowledgment from the admins.
Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for Lawrence Public Schools, wrote that “the board of education has no such policy; however, the district values school families as partners in their children’s education and works to keep families informed.”
Based on these incidents alone, we might even be tempted to draw conclusions about a localized increase in anti-Semitism in Kansas. However, recent research suggests—and the experiences of many American Jews confirm—that these vandalism in Kansas mirrors a disturbing national trend. Anti-Semitism is growing in America.
Last week, the American Jewish Committee released its 2022 report, titled “The State of Antisemitism in America.” Imagine you are a Jew in the America described by this report.
More to the point of these Kansas cases, 16% reported that a family Jewish institution had been targeted with graffiti.
All of this shows how sadly Kansas high schoolers have access to scattered fetid pools filled with the toxic mud of anti-Semitism.
To review Trump’s rhetoric, these are the swamps America needs to drain.
Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.