WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. (Feb. 1)
A picturesque New England college town is finding it isn’t immune to racial intolerance and anti-Semitic slurs. For the past month, local media reports have disclosed charges of bullying at Mt. Greylock Regional School District in western Massachusetts directed against Billy George, a 12-year-old boy who is a seventh-grader at the district’s middle school.
His parents, Kathi and Fred George, say he has been the victim of 11 assaults since the beginning of the school year, some of which include racist and anti-Semitic slurs and threats.
Mt. Greylock, nestled into the snow-covered Berkshire mountains, serves students in grades seven through 12 from Williamstown, home to prestigious Williams College. There were 218 seventh- and eighth-graders last school year, according to the state’s Department of Education, which also reports higher-than-average scores on statewide mandated tests.
The Georges’ story raises vexing questions about what constitutes prejudice, anti-Semitism and hate crimes — and how to overcome the stigma of confronting these issues in a small community.
Among the disturbing and ironic twists to the Georges’ story is the fact that the George family, longtime residents of Williamstown, is not Jewish.
But Fred George, Billy’s father, is a third-generation Lebanese American whose family has lived in Williamstown for 53 years.
Fred and Kathi George, who is white, now believe Billy was “picked on” because of Billy’s dark skin color. The Georges have three daughters; the two oldest are adopted, a fact they note because they are white-skinned and never experienced any discrimination in the schools. Their biological daughter, a senior at Mt. Greylock High School, is also darker-skinned.
“At first, I didn’t even think of the racial comments,” Kathi George recalls during a recent conversation at the family’s kitchen table which, since Nov. 14, is also serving as Billy’s classroom, as he is now being home-schooled by his parents and a private tutor.
“Then when we started looking to these instances, and there were more and more of them, it always seemed there was a nasty name that went along with the attack. It was like somebody slapped me in the face,” George says. “This is not because they think he’s small, it’s because they think he’s different. That was the most unbelievable realization for me.”
“People expect that these kinds of incidents won’t happen in schools and universities,” explains Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, publishers of Teaching Tolerance, a widely used magazine for educators which addresses intolerance and bigotry.
But middle and high schools, as well as colleges reflect society as a whole. There are about 1 million “bias” incidents on these American campuses each year, Potok says.
“There’s no question that it’s best to bring it out in the open,” Potok comments, though it’s easy to understand why schools are averse to drawing attention to themselves in these circumstances, he adds. “But the reality is that it’s invariably better to confront or be proactive.”
Several people interviewed for this story, including Rabbi Howard Cohen, whose Congregation Beth El in nearby Bennington, Vt., includes families whose kids attend the Mt. Greylock school, cite the sharp educational and economic stratification in the area as one explanation for persistent incidents of racial and religious intolerance, he says.
In recent weeks, the school department is responding to the Georges’ allegations in a variety of ways, according to William Travis, Mt. Greylock’s school superintendent, including expanding anti-bullying and tolerance-related programs into the elementary schools, a key to establishing a common framework for students as they enter middle school.
Peer mediators at the high school are involved in the World of Difference program developed by the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League, and ADL is working with the school’s adviser to establish a bond between the high school and middle school students, according to Sue Lonergan of the New England ADL regional office.
In a statement to the police on Nov. 15, Billy George wrote that among other incidents, two boys began kicking him repeatedly a day before while he was sitting down in a school corridor, tying his shoes.
Earlier in the day, Billy George alleges that one of those boys came up behind him and asked if he was an “[expletive] Jew.”
Travis asserts he has seen no anti-Semitism or racist patterns of behavior at the school, but acknowledges that comments such as those alleged by Billy George are unacceptable.
In a conversation at the Jewish Federation of Berkshire County, director Arlene Schiff says she wrote to the chairman of the school committee at Mt. Greylock, offering to help establish a program to combat prejudice, similar to one she and Travis created in Pittsfield, when Travis was superintendent in that city. The chairman thanked her in a phone call, but declined her offer, Schiff says
The committee chairman could not be reached for comment on the incident.
This case, which has resulted in criminal charges being brought against three juveniles, has also attracted the attention of the state’s office of the attorney general, which contacted the Georges directly, and the district attorney of Berkshire County, David Capeless, who met with the school’s staff on Jan. 26 to help set up policies to combat bullying.
Billy George says it was hard to work up the courage to tell his parents about the incidents, which he doesn’t want to talk about any more. He enjoys math and seeing his friends, he says, who continue to come by his house to hang out. He also says he just wants it to be safe for him to go back to school.
Kathi George agrees. “Our hope is that Billy can go back to school and be comfortable there.”