Mr. Peebles Speaks at Conference Tackling Anti-Semitism
Posted 11/29/2017 09:04AM

Laurel Blaske/ OnLion Staff

Following the beer pong incident this past August, the Lovett community has been working to come to terms with the impact and meaning of what happened. There were large and small group TAP meetings, and just before Thanksgiving there was a panel of Jewish alumni who shared their experiences at Lovett. While many of the conversations were about the general need for sensitivity towards students’ backgrounds, there was also a focus on anti-semitism, given the nature of the summer incident.  

Recently, Mr. Peebles spoke at the Tackling Anti-Semitism for our Kids (TASK) Conference, hosted by the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism (AIAAS), where school district employees, principals, teachers, and others in the world of education gathered at Temple Emanuel to discuss anti-semitism and hate in schools. I was one of a small group of students to be a part of the event.

The conference began with Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, Spike Anderson, sharing stories he had heard from teenage congregants. He said one eighth grade student had seen ten other kids drawing swastikas right in front of him, three of whom were his friends, but the boy was barely fazed. As Rabbi Spike put it, “This was becoming their new normal.”

According to Dr. Padilla-Goodman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, there has been a 67% increase in anti-semitism overall with a 107% increase in schools. Experts attribute this to the current political climate and especially the riots in Charlottesville. Although very few of the reported anti-semitic incidents are violent, Dr. Padilla-Goodman agreed with Rabbi Spike. Anti-semitism is simply part of life for some students, but she has hope for the future. “We can change school culture,” she said.

One school particularly involved in preventing hate within their halls is North Springs High School, located in Sandy Springs. Their principal, Scott Hanson, says his school is still a “work in progress.” At North Springs, they take the time to listen to students about what they see, and they have collaborated with the ADL on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, despite all their efforts, the school, similarly to Lovett, experienced a hateful incident this February. Hanson recalled being at a loss during the aftermath. “One speed bump can completely change the direction,” he explained.

Mr. Peebles spoke at the conference, candidly discussing what happened over the summer and how the school responded to it. What started as a small, off-campus gathering expanded into a larger party with alcohol and of course, the Nazis vs. Jews beer pong. In the aftermath,  “there was an explosion of media coverage,” Mr. Peebles said. He felt the majority of the mainstream media was fair in their coverage, but some people weighed in on social media with partially informed perspectives.

I spoke with Mr. Peebles after the event and he said that people at the conference affirmed Lovett’s handling of the incident in terms of its quick and open response. Students received their consequences depending on their involvement, and Mr. Peebles sent a letter to all Lovett families informing them about what happened and encouraging them to have a conversation with their children. Students were brought into the discussion with TAP meetings and visits from Rabbi Peter Berg and Holocaust survivors. Rabbi Hillel Norry spoke to the middle school TAP Jr. group.

The whole ordeal “lead to some deep soul searching on our part,” Mr. Peebles said at the conference, and he affirmed that the incident did not represent the heart of Lovett. In my interview with Mr. Peebles, he noted that Lovett has long been working to strengthen the movement towards inclusivity, at all division levels. A small sample of the efforts includes everything from lower school summer reading books with diverse perspectives to alliances and affinity groups in the upper school to Safe Space training for faculty to multicultural coffees for parents.

The conference also featured students from Whitwell Middle School, home of The Paper Clip Project, which began in 1998 when students studying the Holocaust were struggling to visualize what millions of people would look like, so their teachers and principals helped them collect paper clips. Now they have over 30 million paper clips, 11 million of which are now on display in an authentic German railcar as a part of their student-run museum. Two eighth graders, Jonathan and Corbin, shared their experiences with the program. They said they liked learning about different cultures and the unique setting to meet new people. Their latest project is translating postcards from concentration camps and finding living family members to share them with.

There were many opportunities for conversations throughout the morning. One table was discussing the importance of acknowledging the state of mind of the perpetrators of hateful acts to determine to what extent it influenced their choices.

One educator shared her experience as a parent of two elementary school boys. She noticed the cafeteria at the school had pictures of famous role models, but they were all male. When she brought it up with the administration, their response was, “Why do you care? You only have sons.”

Another table was debating the outcomes of placing more emphasis on being inclusive of minorities. How would that make white male students feel? Would they feel excluded purely because they did not have a “special” trait to be accepted? The group of principals and rabbis eventually agreed that schools should teach students to be accepting and understanding of everyone, instead of teaching them to accept specific groups.

But most of the discussions came down to two major themes: a) hateful opinions and acts spread like wildfire and b) the mindsets children gain in schools affect our entire society. So what does this all mean? If hate starts with one student, other students will become hateful, and society will become more comfortable with hate.

In reflecting on the morning, it occurred to me that education is not just about writing essays and finding square roots. School is also teaching us how to act, how to think, and how to perceive the world around us. Our teachers, administration, and even our peers model behaviors that we as students choose whether or not to follow. As the founders of AIAAS said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

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