Incidents of hate, bias, racism lead to Montgomery school action plan

By Nicole Asbury

The number of incidents of hate have increased exponentially in Montgomery County Public Schools, leading Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight to roll out several initiatives, from more teacher training to a community advisory group, to combat the problems.r

McKnight highlighted the action plan in front of a crowd of students, parents, teachers and county council members during a wide-ranging speech denouncing the hateful acts, drawing on her mother’s lessons of serving others and requesting help from the community.

The initiatives include training for all staff, beginning next year, on responding to incidents of hate and bias. There will also be better coordination from school staff in responding to incidents, along with equity experts to scrutinize the responses.The school system’s fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum is being revised to include more lessons on social justice, and students will learn more about equity issues during assemblies and other school events.

“We have inherited a system that was designed for White students who lived in Whiteneighborhoods and were taught by White teachers, only later to be open for all other students,” McKnight said, explaining theschool system’s transition from segregated schools to its current diverse enrollment. “History matters, and how we treat students for whom the system was not originally built.”

Montgomery County and its school system — which is Maryland’s largest — have reported a rise in hate-based incidents this school year, officials have said. Data from the Montgomery County Police Department showed that 157 incidents with a bias indicator were reported in 2022, and 29 of those incidents were at a school. That was a roughly 383 percent increase of incidents that targeted a school compared with 2021, when six incidents were reported. Fifty-two percent of the incidents in 2022 were antisemitic.

“We’re called together today because of the unfortunate reality that these sorts of actions have become more and more common,” McKnight said. She added that in this year alone, the county’s schools have reported one hateful incident each day on average, which is triple the rate reported the previous year.

In March, roughly two dozen incidents were reported that involved the county’s schools. The reports included sticky notes that were assembled in a swastika formation in the boys’ bathroom of an unidentified middle school and students directing racial slurs at other students. Northwood High School closed its outdoor facilities to the public last month after fliers containing antisemitic language were posted four times on its athletic fields.

Several of the county’s schools have been vandalized with antisemitic remarks and symbols, including several swastikas drawn on desks, in drawers and on tables at schools. An entrance sign at Walt Whitman High School’s entrance sign was defaced with the words, “Jews Not Welcome” in December, and staff at the school reported receiving antisemitic emails a day later.

Students have walked out of classes to protest the hateful acts and lobbiedfor the school system to teach more about the Holocaust and antisemitism.

Hannah Zuck, a junior at Magruder High School, said when the school system first addressed the Holocaust in the seventh grade, several of her peers made jokes and comments that were “misunderstandings sometimes directed at me as a Jewish person.” Many of the comments increased this school year, especially after Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, made several antisemitic comments that included praising Adolf Hitler and Nazis. Some of her peers implied that West “has a point,” she said.

Earlier this school year, her school reported antisemitic graffiti on a student’s desk. The principal sent a sharp email denouncing hate, Zuck said, but there weren’t any follow-upconversations with students after that.

“I don’t think most of the Magruder community had realized that there had been this shift within the Jewish students at schools in feeling … unsafe, maybe feeling unwelcome,” Zuck, 17, said. “I don’t think they realized it because there wasn’t that broad of a response.”

The county’s schools have also seen hateful incidents aimed at the LGBTQ community. In February, a middle school teacher found plans on a student’s schoollaptop for a “homophobic club.” School board members have reported receivinganti-LGBTQ rhetoric in emails since the system in January added books as a supplemental curriculum that includeLGBTQ characters.

McKnight stood by the district’s curriculum Thursday. Some have asked “Why does MCPS include texts by LGBTQ+ authors and with LGBTQ+ characters in our curriculum?” she asked. “Yet the question should be, ‘Why are we just now including these texts in our curriculum? Why has it taken so long?’”

McKnight — who is the school system’s first Black woman to serve as superintendent — has pledged to do more to combat antisemitic attitudes emerging among the county’s youths. In February, she announced that students who commit hateful acts will have them documented in their student file and theirparents will be brought in for mandatory follow-up conversations. The school system has also partnered with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Anti-Defamation League to improve its teachingabout antisemitism and its impact throughout history. Those more robust lessons will begin next school year.

McKnight also referenced the school system’s “anti-racist audit,” a report released last year, that found students of color have a less satisfactory experience with the school system compared with their White peers. She announced that a follow-up “anti-racist action plan” in response to the audit would be presented at a May 11 school board meeting.

Schools in the Whitman High cluster are partnering with the JCRC and Anti-Defamation League to train all school staff during the summer on addressing hateful incidents, said Guila Franklin Siegel, the JCRC’s associate director. Siegel recommended McKnight’s action plan — including staff training — be rolled out consistently across all of the county’s 210 schools.