UPDATED March 19, 2020
A student at a Sacramento high school has been identified as the suspect who carved a large swastika into the school’s baseball field dirt earlier this month. Fellow students provided the tip that led to the person’s identification, school officials reported.
The incident took place at Rio Americano High School, home to 1,685 students and a large Jewish student body.
In a March 17 interview, school principal Brian Ginter said the investigation was closed and he could not discuss potential consequences or whether criminal charges would be sought.
The swastika, about 6 feet wide and etched between first and second base, was discovered on March 3. A week later, a meeting drew approximately 100 primarily Jewish parents and students who sought answers about whether the proper steps were being taken to ensure the safety of the school’s Jewish students.
When two Rio vice principals learned about the swastika from a parent, they reported it to the Safe Schools program, which works with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to keep school communities safe.
Ginter addressed the incident on March 3 in his “Principal’s Message” on the school’s website without sending a message directly to Rio families.
“These types of incidents are disturbing and do not in any way represent the Rio Americano community,” Ginter wrote. “We will continue to work with our students and community to educate all involved and hopefully prevent these types of events from occurring in the future.”
Word about the swastika began to spread. Dana Kurzrock, a Jewish parent of a Rio student, met with Ginter and helped to organize the March 10 meeting, which lasted more than two hours.
In her opening remarks, Kurzrock said she had discussed the swastika incident not only with Ginter but with vice principals, the Safe Schools office, the local Jewish Community Relations Council, rabbis, the Jewish Federation in Sacramento, the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI.
“This is a learning experience,” she said. “We want Rio to be a hate-free zone.”
After receiving complaints about a lack of adequate communication with school families, Ginter admitted that he had erred.
“I am the first to admit that the communication was inadequate,” he said at the meeting. “I should have 100 percent sent out a mass email telling folks to go to the ‘Principal’s Message’ page.”
He laid out a timeline of events, talked about the school’s response and shared news about promising leads on the perpetrator.
Even before the meeting, Ginter was aware that news about the swastika was gaining traction on social media. After he learned of a Facebook post by Jewish Rio father Dan Ott, the principal requested a meeting with Ott and his wife, Melinda, whose daughter is a freshman.
“He took responsibility, which was good,” he said.
After that meeting, Ott said he learned about another incident this year. “We found out that a swastika was found on a student locker in January. It was reported, but nothing happened and nobody heard about it,” he said.
Also compounding the matter for some Jewish parents was a racial incident earlier in the academic year against the school’s African American students. In contrast to his handling of the swastika event, Ginter immediately sent out an email to all Rio families. Many parents in the audience wanted to know why the same step wasn’t taken in response to the anti-Semitic incident.
Rabbi Nancy Wechsler of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael reached out to Rio’s administration and was mentioned as a resource for parents in the “Principal’s Message.” Wechsler has a daughter at the school.
“To create a healthier culture at Rio,” Wechsler said, “everyone must understand that when they have one another’s back, the school is vastly improved. This time it was an anti-Semitic incident on the baseball field. Last time was a swastika on a locker, and prior to that a hateful incident against Black students. Who will it be next time? Hatred is a disease and it shows up in all kinds of forms. The way we defeat these cowardly acts is through education and realizing that everyone is stronger when we don’t fall prey to hurting one another.”
Several Jewish students in the audience also expressed frustration at the lack of communication from the administration. They said their teachers didn’t know what had happened, and they criticized the absence of Holocaust education in the school’s world history courses.
Attendees suggested adopting curricula, training opportunities and awareness campaigns that deal with diversity and bias. Most agreed that education, not punishment, is the best response to hateful acts.
Until those ideas are implemented, however, tensions remain. Rio parent Mary Friedman, who teaches about the Holocaust at Jesuit High School, mentioned lesser-known cases that Jewish Rio students had complained about in the past, such as having pennies thrown at them and being taunted with anti-Semitic tropes.
Scott Shapiro, father of a Rio graduate and a current student, urged Ginter to address the issue directly.
“It took you 32 minutes to say the word swastika,” he said. “This is a hate symbol. I know it’s uncomfortable, but we need to create a culture of not putting up with it. That’s what will make a difference.
“The world is filled with hate,” he continued. “It’s not just our problem. If we don’t speak up, it will continue to happen.”