Reading in ‘Crisis’ Over Series of Hate Graffiti found in Schools, Town
Nov 15, 2018 07:24PM
● By Lisa Redmond
READING – Fearing Reading will become the “poster child’’ for hate, after 30 incidents of swastikas and slurs have been found scrawled around town, at the high school and both middle schools, the Board of Selectmen Tuesday held a public meeting to air community concerns and work toward a solution.
Since 2017, Reading police have created a list of about 30 incidentsof anti-Semitic incidents, including swastikas written in black marker on science lab table discovered last month and “gas the Jews’’ written on a brick in the lobby of Parker Middle School.
The recent spate of anti-Semitic hate graffiti has expanded to African Americans and the LGBTQ communities.
“We are in a bit of a crisis right now,’’ Selectman Chairman Andrew S. Friedman told a group of concerned residents who attended the Nov. 13 Selectmen’s. “We are widely known for our swastikas, so we need to take action as soon as possible.’’
After two hours of discussion, the selectmen ultimately approved establishing an ad hoc committee to look into the issue of hate graffiti that is plaguing the town.
But resident William Brown told the board he has “a problem’’ with any action taken to curb his First Amendment right to free speech.
“As far as I know this has been graffiti, which is vandalism, who determines what is hate speech?’’ he asked.
He added, “I have the right under the First Amendment to say ‘I hate you.’ Don’t take that right away from me. That is what you are attempting to do and I will not tolerate that.”.
The 88-year-old Reading resident generated an outcry as he stated that anyone who infringes on his First Amendment right, will force him to exercise his Second Amendment right (to bear arms).
In a sharp response, Friedman accused Brown of making a threat. But Friedman tried to calm emotions by explaining there are laws against vandalism, “but what we want to create is a culture in town against swastikas (and what they represent).’’
Parent Sherilla Lestrade, who is black, said she “totally agrees’’ that Brown has the right to hate anyone… but other people have the right not to be discriminated because of who they choose to love, what color they are and whomever they praise or not praise.’’
Lestrade added, “We all use language, but we don’t have to use it to hurt people.’’
For too long, people have kept silent or swept under the rug incidents of hate in town for fear ruining the town’s reputation, she said.
When her daughter went to school in Reading, there was a slur made against African Americans and even named the first student on the list to be targeted, Lestrade said. Days later she received an email from school officials saying they were addressing it.
“It’s been four years now and I still don’t know what happened,’’ she said.
She fears that one day she will see Reading on the television, “not there for another hateful word, but that is was acted on.’’ Looking around the room at the crowd, Lestrade said, “Everyone in this room is tired of being scared.’’
Parent Theresa Wiggins, of Village Parenting, said she is “disheartened’’ by the quibbling by town officials about setting up committees and selecting participants. To take action, she is organizing a series of free parent education workshops to teach parents have to talk to their children about inclusion.
Guest speaker, Dr. Anna Ornstein, a holocaust survivor and lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, praised Wiggins saying, “That’s exactly the area where something needs to be done.’’
Ornstein was invited to the meeting to receive a proclamation from the town for her work in human rights.
“We need to feel that kind of solidarity, to feel safe,’’ she said, after the shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue last month that left 11 dead and others wounded, otherwise the people drawing the swastikas and hateful messages will get stronger.
Selectman Barry Berman echoed those sentiments during a poignant Veteran’s Day speech on Monday in which he said the hate messages found in Reading are not only an affront to Jews, but “an affront to all Americans who love democracy, freedom and peace.’’
Berman, who is Jewish, said this “cowardly behavior’’ is a direct slap in the face to every veteran who has ever put on the uniform.’’
As the son of a U.S. Army veteran, who saw first-hand the aftermath of the atrocities at Nazi concentration camps, Berman stressed that as a community, “we have got to come together, stand up and say enough is enough, and that is not who we are.’’
Reading school officials and local police are cooperating in investigating these incidents, but at a Sept. 25 selectmen’s meeting Reading Deputy Police Chief David Clark explained the incidents are hard to investigate because there is usually a lack of information, no witnesses and few leads to follow.
In an Oct. 27 letter sent out to RMHS families and staff, Principal Kathleen M. Boynton said a staff member reported a student found swastikas etched in pencil on the legs of a table in a science lab.
Boynton wrote that she is “profoundly dismayed’’ by the latest discovery of a swastika at the high school. The swastika was lightly etched on the desk and difficult to see except at a certain angle and lighting. There was no threat written as part of the graffiti.
The image was removed and there was a thorough sweep of all the furniture in that classroom. No additional images were found. Building crews then did a sweep of the building looking for more graffiti. There will be additional sweeps of the building over the next few weeks.
“Unfortunately, we continue to have these graffiti-related incidents in our schools and in our community,’’ she wrote. “The swastika symbolizes the hate and anti-Semitism and there is no place for these types of hateful actions or behaviors in our schools or the greater Reading community.’’
School Superintendent John Doherty agreed.
“This type of behavior is not acceptable in our school community and we will continue to do our diligence as a school district to investigate these incidents, take action when necessary, and educate our students on the meaning of these hateful symbols,’’ Doherty wrote in a letter to staff and families.
Toward that end, over the past few years, RMHS staff has focused efforts on making their core values of respect, responsibility, perseverance and scholarship come to life “as we continue to build a community that embraces diversity.’’
Last year, Ornstein spoke with students at an assembly hosted by the student club, A World of Difference, which is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. Students and staff also trained as upstanders and RMHS hosted the Unity Project, a powerful interactive public art project about embracing differences.
This year, students began the school year with Community Day, which was an entire day of devoted to the school’s core values and to build a positive RMHS community, Boynton wrote.
A World of Difference Club, along with several student leadership organizations, such as Peer Leaders, Rocket Ambassadors and Student Council, have more training planned throughout the year.
As for the graffiti, Boynton said, “We seek to find those responsible for these acts and we must continue to educate our entire community if we hope to prevent these acts from reoccurring.’’