Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Parents want Germantown School District to address swastika incidents
Residents are demanding the School Board take action after several antisemitic incidents in Germantown schools.
Students and parents shared concerns about the district’s handling of the incidents at the May 22 school board meeting.
Melissa Garves, a parent of two children at Kennedy Middle School, said swastikas have been drawn on the school’s gym floor, a boys bathroom stall, the back of a choir room door and on desks, lockers and textbooks.
She also said Kennedy students saw an elementary school student draw a swastika on equipment at Alt Bauer Park in Germantown and that a Germantown High School welding shop class found a metal swastika in the trash bin.
“All of these incidents have multiple witnesses, so whether they happened cannot be denied,” Garves said.
She criticized how district leaders communicated to parents about the incidents. She said Kennedy parents received an email in December about a “hateful symbol” and an email in May about the swastikas.
“Students were simply read the exact same email word for word in the following days (after the May incident). No explanation about why swastikas, in particular, are such a harmful symbol, no focus on using education to address the ignorance that exists, which is supposed to be the purpose of a school,” Garves said at the board meeting.
She said the district must make district parents more aware of what’s happening.
“I am asking that you communicate districtwide with a message that makes it clear hate will not be tolerated in our district any longer and that students will receive education regarding the swastika and its history before school is out for the summer, with additional education on diversity and inclusion to follow in fall when school resumes,” Garves said.
Students also appeal to the board
Garves’ daughter Mallory, a sixth grader at Kennedy Middle School, said students don’t know the meaning behind the swastika or understand why it’s bad, causing others to also draw it for attention.
“I think that it would be beneficial for someone to come in and teach us about this so that these drawings will stop. If someone knows about how bad it is, they will stop,” Mallory Garves told the board.
Sandy Pie, a Germantown resident, expressed concerned about the Alt Bauer Park incident.
“We only have a few weeks left of the school year, and I’m really hoping this gets addressed because it could be a very long summer if these kids are continued to be allowed to get away with this until it can be addressed next school year in the fall,” Pie said.
Lydia Paw, a sophomore at Germantown High School, said she has seen “an increasing and alarming rate of antisemitism.” She said in addition to swastikas being drawn on surfaces, she has seen students giving Nazi salutes while making derogatory comments about Jewish people, and has witnessed the use of antisemitic slurs.
“This is unacceptable and incredibly harmful to the Jewish students of the school,” she said. “School is supposed to be a place where everyone can feel safe and included, and what I have witnessed is the complete opposite.”
Paw also criticized a lack of meaningful action by the district.
“Ignoring it is simply not working. I’m asking you to please take action before the end of the school year to address this openly,” she said. “This is an opportunity for you to educate students in meaningful ways that aren’t performative. Don’t just send an email or make an announcement. Do something. We are counting on your leadership, and we are counting on you to do the right thing.”
Germantown isn’t the only school district where a swastika was reported to have been drawn in recent weeks.
In the Grafton School District, middle school teacher David Schroeder was charged May 15 with making terroristic threats after students reported he threatened them while confronting them about a notebook he found with a swastika in it.
Swastika incident led to candidacy
In a phone interview, Joshua Johnson, whose son is Black and attends
Kennedy Middle School, said a swastika was drawn on his son’s desk in November 2022. An investigation was unable to determine who drew it, but he said the email that was sent to parents about the incident was “milquetoast.”
“It didn’t really lay out what happened, what the hate speech or what the hate act was,” Johnson said.
The incident prompted Johnson to run for the Germantown School Board in April. He lost to Kimberly Higgenbotham in the race for Seat 3. Higgenbotham replaced Amanda Reinemann, who did not seek reelection.
Johnson said the email that went to parents about the swastika on the gym floor was “very detailed,” but fell short in its recommendation about how to talk about it to students.
“From my son’s perspective and in other of his classmates that I talked to’s perspective, they really didn’t give any detail. They didn’t really dive down into why it’s unacceptable, which that’s what you should be teaching kids, why this is unacceptable,” said Johnson.
Officials cite student confidentiality
Germantown Schools Superintendent Chris Reuter said in an email that the district is aware of the incidents, but declined to speak further on them.
“When incidents and concerns are reported to the administration by students, parents, and staff, they are investigated, and the appropriate policies and actions are applied to each given situation,” Reuter wrote. “Due to student confidentiality, we cannot provide specifics on the incidents that have been reported to the school administration.”
When reached by phone May 22 and asked about the swastikas found at the school, Kennedy Middle School Principal Jessica Gieryn declined to comment and referred a reporter to the school district office.
Germantown High School principal Joel Farren has not responded to an email or phone messages requesting an interview.
Holocaust center meets with school officials
Holocaust Education Resource Center’s executive director Samantha Abramson said staff members met with Gieryn and Kennedy Assistant Principal Brandon Kohl last week. The center is a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Also part of the meeting was the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee, which is also part of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
“Any time we hear of antisemitism or rhetoric in a school, we want to make sure that we’re able to provide top-quality resources to help students and educators. So we offered just that,” Abramson said.
Abramson said during that meeting that the center offered access to professional development workshops, a digital toolkit online at teachholocaust.org with 116 lesson plans vetted by trusted sources, and one-on-one consultations it gives to all school districts for teachers and curriculum specialists who want to develop their curriculum on Holocaust and other genocide education, as well as discussion on Jewish identity and other related information.
It is unknown whether the school plans to take advantage of any of those offerings. Gieryn has not responded to a follow-up phone call or emails asking about the school’s conversation with the center.
Abramson also said they reminded the district that antisemitism is on the rise in Wisconsin and nationwide. It’s something the organization tells other districts and people as well.
Reported antisemitic incidents in Wisconsin are up 494% from 2015 to 2022, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee’s 2022 audit of antisemitism incidents. Also, from 2021 to 2022, the same audit said there was a 22% increase in incidents in elementary, middle and high schools, which included swastika graffiti, Holocaust jokes or direct harassment of Jewish students.
“Holocaust education can be a really wonderful opportunity to combat that, especially when we see that happening in a public space, whether in a public school or somewhere else,” Abramson said. “When these incidents do happen in a school, it’s an opportunity for parents to really have that conversation with their children about what it means to be respectful of individual differences and to really foster that kindness in humanity with everyone they encounter.”
The state now requires the Holocaust to be taught in all state schools at least once in grades five through eight and at least once in grades nine through 12. The legislation took effect at the start of the 2022-’23 school year. Some schools were already doing so, but others had not and others took the opportunity to expand their curriculum on the subject.
Reuter said in an email that the district’s seventh-grade students learn about the Holocaust and that unit began at the beginning of May. He said the seventh-grade unit has been taught in previous years. Reuter also said high school students learn about the Holocaust “through multiple social studies offerings,” which he said has also been taught in previous years.