(JTA) — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that an Arizona school district did not respond appropriately to repeated instances of antisemitic harassment targeted at a student, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The student, who was enrolled at Altadeña Middle School in the Kyrene School District during the 2018-2019 school year, reported to school principal James Martin, with video evidence, that she was subjected to repeated incidents of antisemitic harassment by at least nine other students at school and on social media over the course of five months.
In one video, a student carried a rifle while pretending to speak German and imitating a Nazi soldier. In another video, multiple students in a school classroom gave Nazi salutes, saying in a German accent “[t]his is the most glorious time in our country.”
As a result of the months of harassment, the student, who was previously enrolled in honors courses, began homeschooling. When she returned to in-person schooling in another district the following year, she fell behind academically and was placed in remedial classes.
OCR’s investigation, which concluded Tuesday, found that the principal “failed to provide timely, specific, and clear communication to School staff regarding the harassment of the Student,” and that he failed to properly inform his staff of the situation, leaving them unprepared to monitor or identify ongoing harassment.
James Martin left his position at Altadeña Middle School at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and is now principal of Centennial Middle School, also in the Kyrene School District.
OCR also found that the school district failed to address harassment across the school because it did not take “any school wide measures to address the anti-Semitic harassment until several months after confirming its existence, which allowed a potential hostile environment to persist in the school.” The only school-wide measure to specifically address antisemitic harassment was not implemented until seven months after the principal learned of the harassment against the Jewish student. But this training was only for staff, not students, which the OCR said allowed a “potential hostile environment to persist” in the school.
Kyrene School District is in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe. The county’s Jewish population has grown by nearly 20% since 2002 and is now home to nearly 100,000 Jews. Antisemitism in Arizona has risen by 155% according to an April audit from the Anti-Defamation League.
The Kyrene School District wrote in a press release that “action was taken in the 2018-19 school year to address the complaint with both students and staff, and students involved were held accountable for their in-school actions.”
A voluntary resolution agreement reached between the district and OCR includes the creation of a district-wide anti-harassment statement to be posted on the district website and “prominent locations” in the schools; updated harassment reporting and complaint policies; discrimination and investigation training for staff; informational programming for students; and further audits and assessments of how the district handles instances of harassment.
Jolie Brislin, the regional director of the ADL’s Arizona chapter, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “We welcome the investigation, and we’re glad that this was taken seriously.” Her chapter, which has already worked with the school district on anti-bias programs, will continue to provide education about antisemitism and bias for schools in the area.
In addition to new requirements for the district, the student involved will also receive financial reimbursement for the cost of tutoring and “services resulting from the anti-Semitic harassment which were incurred during the Student’s attendance in District.”
The superintendent of the district, Laura Toenjes, said in a press release: “As a person of Jewish faith, I was deeply affected by this investigation. I will work very closely with our Board to ensure every student of every faith, every race, and every background feels safe, valued, and respected inside our schools.”
In May, the district approved its first diversity, equity and inclusion policy.
“This work would happen regardless of the resolution in front of us today, but we are grateful for the opportunity to reflect, and we appreciate the guidance that will be offered by the Office for Civil Rights,” Toenjes added.
Toenjes declined an interview with JTA, but a spokesperson from her office said in an email: “The Superintendent feels the OCR resolution is just one more layer in Kyrene School District’s ongoing efforts to address inclusivity and belonging for all students. Action was taken (as outlined in the OCR letter) to directly address the situation that occurred at one school in 2018-19. Since that time, Kyrene has prioritized equity and inclusion District-wide through staff trainings, outside consultation, and a new equity policy. The District is not limited by the items outlined in the resolution and will always reflect, evaluate, and seek to improve.”
This is not the first time the Kyrene School District has come under scrutiny. In 2018, the district released data that showed Black students were punished more frequently than non-Black students.
In 2021, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a Holocaust education bill for K-12 schools that requires the State Board of Education to adopt requirements for teaching about “the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between 7th and 12th grades.” The bill was sponsored by State Rep. Alma Hernandez, who is Jewish.
Brislin expressed dismay that the student was harassed for months with no recourse but commended her family’s commitment to holding the district accountable.
“They didn’t allow this situation to be swept under the rug,” Brislin said. “They said that we are here, that this antisemitic rhetoric is not okay, and that we are going to hold the school district accountable to make sure that no other student has to be put in this situation.”