What we know
- On November 2, junior Montez McNeil found a swastika in the first-floor men’s bathroom around 1:30pm.
- On November 12, sophomore Josh Gaba found a swastika on the conductor’s music stand in the choir room during lunch.
- On November 13, members of The Augur Bit found a swastika in the first-floor men’s bathroom around 1:00pm. This one was not in the same location as the first swastika.
- On November 14, Katie Gibson spoke to the high school again confirming the new reports. Addressing the perpetrator in the crowd, Gibson said “you should not be at this school.”
While washing his hands in the first-floor men’s bathroom, junior Montez McNeil noticed a swastika scribbled in pencil on the wall next to the sink.
Since McNeil found the initial drawing on November 2, The Augur Bit has confirmed two additional swastikas, one in the choir room and another in the same first-floor men’s bathroom.
“It took a minute for me to really register it after what had just happened,” McNeil said, referencing the shooting of eleven Jewish people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh only one week prior.
Then, on November 12, sophomore Josh Gaba found another swastika on Choral Director Jason Strunk’s music stand in the choir room. Unlike the previous instance, this swastika left a permanent mark; it was inscribed into the plastic music stand with a sharp, metal object.
Later, on November 13, The Augur Bit found a smaller swastika in the first-floor men’s bathroom. In the bathroom, this swastika was in a different location than the initial one but was drawn in the same manner.
All three swastikas faced the opposite direction of the traditional Nazi swastika, but the figures were oriented at different angles. The swastikas found in the bathroom were straight and had arms bent at 90 degree angles, while the swastika found on the music stand was slanted with messy, jagged arms.
McNeil saw the swastika after leaving Khalid Bashir’s English class to use the bathroom. When he returned, McNeil informed the class about what he saw, stunning Bashir, who then went to see the drawing and photographed it.
As Bashir was heading back to his classroom, he told other faculty members in the hallway about the swastika, including Head of School Russell Shaw. Shaw then inspected the swastika himself and erased it.
When Bashir returned to class, he spent the rest of the class reflecting on the incident rather than returning to his lesson plan.
“I asked the students to think about what they might need or want at that moment, if they wanted to talk about it or sit in silence,” Bashir said. “I was willing to give them whatever they needed or wanted.”
According to Bashir, when the students did speak up, they voiced their feelings of frustration, confusion, lack of surprise and disappointment.
It was clear to both Bashir and his students that the drawing of the swastika was neither isolated nor coincidental. Headlined by the Pittsburgh shooting, incidents of anti-Semitism have recently skyrocketed in America. The Anti-Defamation League reported that there was a 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017, the largest such increase in almost 40 years.
Given the severity of these incidents, Principal Katie Gibson and Director of Diversity Marlo Thomas have been carefully crafting a plan of action for moving forward. Three days after McNeil found the first swastika, the two administrators addressed the high school during Monday Meeting and informed parents with an email sent later that night.
Gibson explained the school’s stance in her email to parents: “We are a School [sic] that honors individuals with diverse identities and varying viewpoints. Hateful symbols and language have no place at GDS.”
The first step of the administration’s response was to identify the meaning of the swastika, a symbol which has multiple connotations in different cultures. Although some faculty members thought that the swastika in the bathroom more closely resembled the Hindu symbol for prosperity than the sign of the Nazi party, the administration decided, after some hesitation, to evaluate the symbol as one of Nazism.
Once they established the drawing as a hate symbol, Gibson and Thomas decided to respond with conversations and education.
“The most critical steps for us are, first, to act immediately, secondly to communicate, denounce and name very specifically what we are finding to show that hate has no place here, and thirdly to come together to show a united front,” Thomas said in an interview.
Since many issues of bigotry stem from bias, Thomas explained that the school plans to incorporate more lessons of empathy into the GDS curriculum and especially into the ninth-grade seminar course.
“As an educator, it really is about how we develop the awareness to think about how we get conditioned into our own biases, and then also what needs to happen as we are recognizing the biases of other people to help bring them along,” Thomas said. “That’s where the foundation has to start: to uncover, explore and have conversations about these issues.”
Given the lack of information surrounding the case, the administration had no plans to investigate who drew the first swastika, though it may now start an investigation after Gaba found the second one. Since GDS is an open campus, the perpetrator may not have been a student, but potentially even a faculty member or outside visitor.
“At the end of the day, I don’t have an investigative FBI team that I can turn to for forensics and fingerprint analysis,” said Gibson. “If more information surfaces, would we want to learn more and take other steps? Absolutely. But it would be impossible for me to name what those steps would be at the present time.”
Since the initial drawings were found, some students reported finding more swastikas throughout the building, but all of other reports besides those of the swastikas found in the bathroom and choir room are uncorroborated by the school. English teacher Anna Howe confirmed that students approached her about additional swastikas, but she declined to identify these students to protect their anonymity. (Howe also did not specify whether these students saw the symbols firsthand or were just spreading what they had heard from their peers.)
Thomas admitted that the administration has heard these reports and is currently working to determine if they are valid.
“I was informed that there were students who came forward and said they found other swastikas and removed them when they saw them,” Thomas said. “Different from the initial case where an adult was sought out to come see the image and wipe it down, we have been trying to figure out where these [new] images were placed based on the descriptions of students and also what our next steps of action need to be.”
When a similar issue concerning the n-word occurred at GDS last year, several seniors led discussions about the bigoted term and educated their peers about its sordid history. Now, the school is taking a similar approach, encouraging student groups to lead conversations about these harmful issues in our community.
In particular, the newly formed affinity group Jewish Student Coalition (JSC) has held meetings about these anti-Semitic events and aims to continue facilitating discussions on the topic.
“We wanted to hear what the members of the club’s positions were on what had happened, having an open discussion not only on how they felt directly after the incident but also ways that we can move forward as a community, specifically a Jewish community,” said JSC co-head Alex Wellisch.
Thomas explained, though, that these conversations must transcend the classroom in order to make an impact.
“There’s a parent education piece, there’s a student piece and then there’s a faculty development piece,” Thomas said. “We all need to be working in connection with one another so that we can just keep getting better, stronger and embody what it truly means to be an inclusive community.”
If anybody has any more information about the swastikas, please talk to a faculty member and contact The Augur Bit at firstname.lastname@example.org with reports or photographs.
This is a developing story.
By Zach Blank ’19