Superintendent Responds to Swastika Incident at Penn Brook.

As the Superintendent of Schools, I write this blog with great sadness.  I feel sad that our children are growing up in a world that often does not accept and respect people regardless of their race, religion and appreciation of those who are different.   I am sad because our children are growing up in a world where some people fail to live by the golden rule and who are unable to understand and accept the perspectives of others that differ from their own. Teaching tolerance and respect for one another are core tenants in the Georgetown Public Schools and they will always be among the most important reasons we open our doors every day. Our mission is to ensure that ALL students have the opportunity to achieve their full potential in safe schools that prepare them to be good and responsible citizens in their communities. As educators, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to work with ALL children and their families regardless of their background or beliefs. When children come through our doors, our job is to educate them, every one of them to the best of our ability in collaboration with the families that love them.

Many people are understandably and justifiably upset about the incident that happened last week at the Penn Brook School when two 6th grade students drew swastikas with mud on the side of a curb at recess. I join you in being upset and I strongly denounce the actions taken by these students but it is important to remember that they are elementary students who made a serious mistake, the significance of which they did not fully understand.  I think Principal Margaret Maher said it well in her letter to school staff, “Teaching tolerance from different points of view will always be our goal, but being hurtful and hateful to any particular group is never acceptable and has no place at the Penn Brook”.  I feel confident that these words represent the sentiments of all of our educators and when these types of incidents occur, it causes all of us to reflect on how this can happen in our schools because actions like this go against our core value system as educated human beings.

The truth is that despite the fact that the Penn Brook School strives to be a community that CARES, we are human and we cannot always control every decision or choice that our students make any more than a parent can control every decision or choice that their child makes before they make it.  However, we can control how we respond to situations like this and take advantage of the “teachable moments” that they unfortunately present. While the actions of these students were clearly wrong and hurtful, they accepted responsibility which is never easy especially when it brings this type of an emotional reaction. If they didn’t understand it then, they have a better understanding now due to the way that the school has handled this. I know that not everyone is willing to accept that this action was not motivated by hate but in this case we disagree.   The school’s response to this situation demonstrates that they took swift action while taking into consideration that they are dealing with children and they took the approach that mistakes are always opportunities for learning. It is often the most challenging situations that offer the greatest opportunity for reflection, growth and a call to action. This particular situation has highlighted the commitment of the larger school community to use this as a learning opportunity that will make the entire school culture even stronger than it is now.

I know there is a lot of discussion about how the school should have responded to this incident and some people agree with the consequences and others do not. This is a no win situation in many ways but I want to assure the entire community that we are committed to our mission of educating EVERY student to the best of our ability and holding them accountable for their mistakes. Students at the Penn Brook are young and impressionable and they are looking to us as adults to be compassionate, fair and empathetic especially when our values are challenged.  Please don’t mistake my comments and any actions that the school is taking to imply that we are taking this incident lightly or condoning this action in any way because nothing could be further from the truth.  Our interest is in raising the consciousness of students about the power of their words and actions, educating them about diversity and appreciation of others and sending a message that there are consequences for showing disrespect to groups of people or individuals whether they understand the full significance or not. .

At the end of the day, we also have an obligation to model the behaviors that we want to see in our students.   I ask you as members of the community to join me and the staffs at all of the schools in teaching, reinforcing and modeling the values of acceptance, tolerance and love for one another so that our children will grow into people who, in turn, respect and appreciate all cultures, races, and religions. If this happens, we will not have to face situations like this where any group of people feel targeted and disrespected because it would not occur to anyone to draw symbols that signify hate and/or a history of oppression.

Some have said that this is a community issue and I will leave that up to the community to decide about the truth in this statement but should people form a town wide coalition, I would be happy to participate. Mrs. Maher will be sending out a correspondence soon about the actions the school is taking to address this situation and , as a district, we are (1) conducting an audit of our curriculum to be sure we are teaching history in a way that is culturally sensitive to all people and groups considering  appropriate stages of children’s development (2) conducting discussions in the older grades about the power of words and symbols and what they mean to others (3) utilizing the SRO to increase student awareness of legal ramifications ( 4) working with a local Rabbi to assist us in processing this with children (4) inviting guest speakers and (5) providing parents with the opportunity to discuss their feelings about this incident at a upcoming “Coffee and Conversation” session with the Principal for which the date is being set.

You have my word that the schools we will continue to ensure that curriculum embraces the importance of cultural sensitivity, our social curriculum teaches the values of compassion, empathy, acceptance, respect and self-control and we will never accept that symbols of hate have a place in our schools.  Together as the trusted adults in our children’s’ lives, we are their role models and their teachers. I can say for sure that they are definitely watching us and this is a “teachable moment”.  Thank you for your support as we continue to heal and come together as a community unified in our mission to raise strong and responsible students who value and respect others.