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Teachable moment

November 9, 2018

GREENWICH — Last week, in the wake of the fatal shooting at the Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh, Greenwich Country Day School Headmaster Adam Rohdie decided it was time to address how his school had previously handled an incident of vandalism.

In the spring of 2017, Rohdie found two swastikas the size of quarters in a school hallway and in the ninth grade lounge, drawn in pencil.

He and staff talked to students, and brought the Anti-Defamation League in to conduct an all-school assembly.

“We’re in the business of educating kids,” Rohdie said. “The kids don’t understand the power of words or symbols.”

At the assembly, students learned the history behind the swastika and were told to come forward if they knew any information about the drawings.

Administrators erased the hate symbols and turned their efforts toward tracking down the vandal. Rohdie and the head of the upper school checked surveillance videotapes and talked to kids in groups and individually. That the school is frequently used by eight to 10 outside groups complicated the search, Rohdie said.

At the time, the school did not communicate with parents directly about the discovery.

ADL Associate Director Andy Friedland said every school that faces a potential anti-Semitic hate crime has a different story and the ADL responds accordingly,

“We don’t have a checklist, there’s no cookie cutter response,” Friedland said. “We work with the different administrators, teachers and students and try to do the best thing for everyone involved.”

At the time, Rohdie saw the incident as a teachable moment that did not merit notifying parents, he said.

“I’m Jewish, my board chair is Jewish,” Rohdie said. “You try to put everything into perspective.”

Nor did the school contact the police.

“It’s hard to draw a line in the sand,” Rohdie said. “It’s not a hate crime to find a swastika. There are clear definitions of what constitutes a hate crime. When you talk about crime, you talk to the police. If you saw this, not sure what the police would’ve done with that.”

Each school has its own policy and procedures on how to address racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, Greenwich Police Lt. John Slusarz said in an email.

When the police are brought in, a full comprehensive investigation takes place, he said.

“Whatever the outcome, age-appropriate education on the topic is generally a good response by the school,” he said. “It provides them an opportunity to minimize any rumors and reinforce positive behaviors.”

But after the Pittsburgh shooting — the largest attack against Jewish people in the United States in the country’s history — Rohdie said he used the incident to show how the school is not insulated from anti-Semitism.

“The school is trying to do the right thing and communicate, we want to encourage that,” Friedland said. “We hope to keep doing programs with them, they’ve been a great partner.”

People are on high alert after the shooting in Pittsburgh, he said.

“The work we do hasn’t fundamentally changed, but people are scared now,” Friedland said. “That’s what the effect of a hate crime is: The entire community feels less safe, as do other communities that could be targeted.”

There can be a difference between the intent behind a swastika and its impact, he said.

People can draw swastikas because they are angry and want to use the most hateful symbol they know, or because they subscribe to Nazi philosophy and intend to harm others. People who find the symbols could assume they were drawn by kids who did not know what they were doing, or see the signs as appeals to the Nazi government, which killed millions of Jews, and fear for their lives.

Rabbi Mitch Hurvitz of Temple Sholom said he admires the continuing discussion that has occurred after the shooting.

“My experience with Greenwich Country Day is that they’ve been proactive in making sure that there’s no place for prejudice, bias or anti-Semitism,” he said.

The school works with the temple, and many Greenwich Country Day families attend Temple Sholom.

“The fact that the ADL has historically partnered with them has been something that has been very helpful,” he said. “As someone who has been in the community for 24 years, GCD has always been extremely good at wanting to be effective.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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