In response to several incidents of hate speech and antisemitism at public schools in San Mateo over the last few years, a county grand jury has released its report scrutinizing how administrators are handling the difficult issue. In a survey of 20 principals, the jury found both a lack of uniform, detailed policies and no clarity on whether students understand what constitutes a hate incident.
The report came after several incidents — including one that qualified as a hate crime — roiled Burlingame High, one of six high schools in the San Mateo Unified High School District, and put a spotlight on the county’s public school system.
“I think the most important part of the grand jury report for me was that they interviewed students, and students responded by saying, ‘Yes this is happening on campus,’” said San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee, whose office oversees the county’s 94,000 public-school students.
The report, released Sept. 24, found the rate of such incidents in San Mateo County schools was lower than the national rate. But it also noted that the differences could reflect a lack of reporting within the school community.
In fact, the grand jury noted that district policies on how to track and respond to hate incidents were often unclear or distributed poorly, and that administrators “could not confirm whether students understood what constitutes a hate incident or inappropriate behaviors.”
Parent Jessica Rosenbaum would agree. “Students have no idea that the way they speak is actually hate speech,” she said. “They don’t understand that their way of interacting among each other is actually problematic.”
Her son, Ilan Rosenbaum, now a senior, was targeted at Burlingame High School in April 2019 when a swastika and the word “fag” were drawn on his locker — one of the incidents that led the grand jury to investigate. In September 2019, a former student allegedly spray-painted swastikas and other hateful and bigoted graffiti outside the school. There was also an incident at the school in 2018 where students chanted anti-Asian racist words during a basketball game.
“After the three incidents at Burlingame High School, school and District administrators stated they did not believe such incidents reflected the dominant school culture,” the report found. “Yet, some students at the school expressed a belief that there was a lack of tolerance for minorities.”
Magee said that it is important to focus on the student experience and not just the number of incidents.
“What the students report is like, yeah, this is happening around us,” she said. “To me it’s that student voice that we want to pay attention to.”
Ilan Rosenbaum, who was interviewed by the grand jury, said that casual racism and antisemitism were pervasive at his school. He asserted that teachers couldn’t avoid hearing it in the classrooms and halls of Burlingame High School but that there were no consequences, probably because the teachers didn’t have the training to deal with it.
“Nobody cares,” he said. “Everyone says everything, and there’s no accountability.”
Since his locker was vandalized, he said, he’s been pushing his school to adopt clear guidelines on how to recognize and respond to hate incidents when they arise, so he was pleased to see the same recommendations coming from the grand jury report.
“I was really happy with [the report]. I think it was extensive and showed the degree to which hate has infected San Mateo Union High School District schools.”
The report recommended meeting with students and asking them about hate speech that might go unnoticed by staff or unreported by kids. The jury also recommended that schools organize presentations to make sure students understand what a hate crime is and what the procedures are if one happens.
Burlingame High School principal Paul Belzer told J. that the school was taking the report seriously, and praised the dedication of his staff and students.
“I recognize that we have work to do here at Burlingame High School,” he said. “It is not new work. It is enduring work.”
The report also recommended that schools use existing curricula from the county and the Anti-Defamation League meant to combat intolerance. (ADL has already done work in San Mateo County schools, including at Burlingame High School and Burlingame Intermediate School, where a student reportedly was taunted with antisemitic slurs in early 2019.)
“The Grand Jury’s report is a pointed reminder of the need for ongoing anti-bias work to achieve and maintain a healthy environment for students,” said ADL senior associate regional director Nancy Appel in an email to J. “ADL looks forward to engaging with District and school officials to implement our No Place for Hate and other anti-bias programs, as the Grand Jury recommends.”
The report also recommended a program recently launched by Magee’s office that’s in use in other counties called Camp LEAD. Magee said San Mateo County was in the process of rolling out the team-building and leadership program, but that it hadn’t reached most schools yet.
“It’s hard to launch such a big, logistically intensive program, and had Covid not hit we’d be in a completely different scenario right now,” Magee said.
Even though Covid has thrown a wrench into plans for the school year, the grand jury’s conclusions require public schools to take action. The school districts have 90 days to respond with information on steps they’ll implement.
“Educators and administrators must respond swiftly, intentionally and unequivocally to every reported act of bias,” Appel said. “And it is important for them to recognize that an individual bias incident is often an indicator of larger challenges affecting a school’s climate.”
According to information collected by ADL, in 2019 there were 411 antisemitic incidents at K-12 schools nationwide (up 19 percent in 2018), and 186 incidents at colleges and universities (down 10 percent from 2018).
“Schools are nothing but microcosms and mirrors of the society in which we live, so all you have to do is look at America and figure out what’s going on,” Magee said. “We’re in a divided nation.”