Advocacy by East Bay Jewish teenager to school board – J.

For more than two years, 16-year-old Elkan Pleat, a first-timer at Monte Vista High School in Danville, hid a significant part of his identity from the school community. He feared what would happen at school if people knew he was Jewish.

Since the start of her freshman year, Pleat has seen more than 20 swastikas in graffiti around campus. He heard many Holocaust jokes suggesting that someone should “finish what the Nazis started,” often referring to gas chambers and ovens. He made sure his Star of David necklace was not visible and recently stopped wearing it altogether.

But on October 28, Pleat decided to act.

Just hours after seeing a second swastika at school in two days – one in black ink in the boy’s bathroom with “siege heil” scrawled below, the second painted on a wall in the gymnasium — Pleat gave an impassioned three-minute speech during the public comment portion of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District school board meeting.

The school district serves some 30,000 students at 35 school sites in Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, Diablo and San Ramon. Monte Vista High has approximately 2,300 students.

Pleat’s family moved to Contra Costa County from northern New Jersey eight years ago, joined Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, and settled in Danville, a town of 43,000 named one of the safest communities in California. The median household income is $167,827 and the population is 78% white, according to the most recent 2020 census data.

Breaking Danville’s reputation for warm, small-town charm, antisemitic leaflets were discovered in February along a popular hiking trail. They included Holocaust propaganda alongside a photograph of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz. Then in April, the Danville police sentenced anti-Semitic leaflets left in front of several residences.

As of 2021, similar flyers have been found in cities and towns across the Bay Area.

In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League held several days of Jewish-alliance-focused school assemblies in Burlingame in response to antisemitic jokes and bullying both at Burlingame Intermediate, a middle school, and at Burlingame High School.

In 2017, a freshman from Alameda High School was the target of frequent anti-Semitic taunts and cyberbullying by texting classmates.

Across California, Pleat noted that anti-Semitic attacks have risen sharply, citing the ADL 2021 Audit showing 367 reported attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in California in 2021, nearly triple the attacks since 2015.

“I’m very concerned that things are getting worse,” Pleat told the board, public attendees and others watching the Oct. 28 education board meeting. live. on Youtube. “After speaking tonight, I don’t feel safe on your campus tomorrow. All I can think about is someone looking to shoot me because I’m Jewish or because I have spoken tonight.

In conclusion, the teenager called for increased Holocaust education to combat the anti-Semitism and Nazi graffiti he described.

Pleat, goaltender for the varsity junior water polo team, was unsure how his peers would treat him at school the day after his speech. He attended classes as usual after meeting the equity bond in the morning. Then, in the middle of the school day, he was informed by the principal of Monte Vista, Kevin Ahern, that the swastika in the gymnasium which had been plastered over was once again on display. Ahern said in an interview with J. that it looked like someone had stuck their finger in the still-drying plaster and redrawn the swastika.

“It’s so frustrating because in some cases you feel like you’re chasing ghosts,” Ahern said, noting that it’s often difficult to catch the graffiti writer, and in the case of the gymnasium, no camera is installed because it is also a Classroom.

In the end, the maintenance crew scraped off the original plaster, replastered and resanded the wall with quick-drying compound, then painted the wall to completely conceal the swastika, he said. -he declares. He also ordered school supervisors, paid employees who provide security on campus, to do more frequent bathroom checks and to track any vandalism by reviewing video from cameras installed outside bathrooms.

Verbal barbs and anti-Semitic jokes, Ahern said, are “the big chunk” he thinks the school needs to explicitly and urgently address.

To that end, this week’s “Mustang Moment” on November 9, a monthly discussion session on community norms and the harms of discrimination, to be held during term two, will focus on education to anti-Semitism and religious tolerance. In each class, a teacher-led presentation will be followed by student discussion and written reflection. The school’s equity officer developed the lesson in conjunction with several Jewish students on campus, including Pleat.

“The focal point has to be what these symbols mean, and all the ramifications of what they mean and what they represent,” Ahern said.

When Ahern became principal eight years ago, 65% of students were white and 35% were students of color, according to Ahern. Today, 55% are students of color (primarily Asian) and 45% are white.

Show the video of the liberation of a camp. Bring in a Holocaust survivor to talk about their experiences. Make it close, personal, emotional, so they really feel.

Pleat said while he appreciates the quick response and support he received from school officials, he is unhappy with the minimal Holocaust education he has seen in the program. from school – a page in his AP European history textbook and a lesson on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Show the video of the liberation of a camp. Bring in a Holocaust survivor to talk about their experiences. Make it close, personal, emotional, so they really feel,” Pleat told J.

Ahern said he agrees that Holocaust education is essential, but it won’t be easy to implement. For example, he said he received resistance from some teachers who said they would feel “uncomfortable” leading the class discussion on anti-Semitism, due to insufficient training on teaching a complex subject.

“I think Elkan’s conversation with the council has led to other conversations at the district level about how we are introducing deeper levels of Holocaust education into our history classes and classrooms. special English to make sure the students know very well what happened,” says Ahern. “The problem has not gone away, and we must do everything we can to eradicate it.”

Ken Mintz, the outgoing school board president, said he could not comment on how the council would respond to Pleat’s specific concerns at the district level. But he echoed Ahern’s point that tackling anti-Semitism is now a higher priority, largely because of Pleat’s speech.

“These are things that we take very seriously,” said Mintz, who is Jewish.

The 18-year-old board member told J. that he and his fellow board members have known for a long time of anti-Semitic acts and swastikas to Monte Vista High, and through their work with the ADL, seven schools in the San Ramon Valley have been designated as No Place for Hate campus in 2017.

Mintz added, “Here is a case where because we have had this stuff before, we were already taking action. But at the same time, ask the students to come and talk [like Pleat did] says a lot.

In the past, Ahern has disciplined some students by inflicting a five-day suspension, the maximum allowed by the state, and working with the student after the suspension following the guidelines set forth in district policy. Discrimination and Hate Response Manual. “I will always try to educate,” Ahern said, “but at the same time, your actions have consequences.”

Pleat, who used to shut up when he heard an anti-Semitic joke, said he now feels empowered to report cases through the school district. anonymous tip line, a resource introduced by the district in 2017, or directly to an administrator. Ahern said he hopes class discussions about anti-Semitism will empower more students to do the same.

“The last thing you want is to be targeted because you reported [an incident] or you reported someone,” Pleat said. But at the school board meeting on October 28, “I realized that it was better for me to be a target than someone who is not able to fight back or defend himself.”

Pleat also thinks of his sister, a sixth-grader at Diablo Vista Middle School, who he says has been the target of anti-Semitic comments from classmates since she was in kindergarten.

Pleat’s mother, Arianna, initially said she was not in favor of him speaking at the education board meeting, worried about his safety and the possibility of retaliation.

Ahern said he received messages of support from several local rabbis, including one who introduced him to a local interfaith council for advice.

After this week’s class discussions, Ahern plans to continue developing programs with the ADL and hopes to bring a group of speakers to the school in the future, he said.

“Anti-Semitism is not just about religion. It’s also a matter of race,” he said. “We need to think about that, what that duality looks like and what that means.”