October 2, 2017
STOUGHTON – The Louis D. Brandeis Center, a Jewish rights nonprofit organization, is continuing its push for Stoughton school administrators to rescind the punishment of three teachers who discussed an anti-Semitic incident at the high school with their students and colleagues last fall.
Two of the center’s lawyers, Jennifer Gross and Aviva Vogelstein, sent Stoughton Superintendent Marguerite Rizzi a letter last week calling for her to retract the punishments, specifically that of one teacher, Stella Martin, who held an in-classroom discussion of the incident.
Rizzi responded with her own letter, which took issue with the lawyers’ understanding of the issue, prompting another letter from the pair on Friday.
Read the Louis D. Brandeis Center’s response to Rizzi at the bottom of this article.
The pair argued that punishing Martin for engaging her class in a discussion about anti-Semitic symbolism and the history of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany was a violation of her rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and could have a chilling effect on the district’s staff’s attempts to address future, similar incidents.
The controversy started in November 2016 when a student used tape to make a swastika while decorating the halls after school during Thanksgiving week. He then made a comment regarding Adolf Hitler’s killing of Jews during the Holocaust. The same day, another student used a swastika in a group chat outside of school that involved more than a dozen students.
After some teachers discussed the incident with their colleagues and students, the parent of the student who made the swastika filed a complaint against them, claiming her son was being bullied.
Following an investigation, one teacher was suspended without pay for talking to one student and some of her colleagues about the incidents, and for rescinding a college letter of recommendation for the student who made the swastika and telling the school why in vague terms, according to Enterprise coverage at the time.
Two other teachers received letters of reprimand for discussing the incident with students and colleagues.
Rizzi fired back at the center in her own letter last week, accusing them of only “seeking half of a story” and citing incorrect information.
Gross and Vogelstein, in their most recent exchange, rebuffed that notion.
“You can and should be confident that our investigation into this matter was conducted carefully. It certainly was not one-sided,” they wrote, noting that their research of the issue had drawn from the report resulting from an independent investigation that the district has itself ordered and other internal district documents.
“The investigation reports present the findings that are the
basis of the district’s decision to impose discipline on these teachers – in other words, they are, or should be, the best source of the district’s view of the underlying facts,” Gross and Vogelstein wrote. “Thus, to the extent that you claim our letter presents false information, we respectfully disagree, and we ask that you share with us the specific statements you have in mind, rather than make blanket claims that our entire letter is simply false.”
The pair also questioned Rizzi’s reliance on the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act as a reason that the district can’t discuss its handling of the incident and decision to punish the teachers. The law protects confidential student records from disclosure.
“She was not accused of or disciplined for revealing
confidential records. We see no reason why a discussion of her punishment for that same
conversation would invoke the privacy statute,” they wrote.
They concluded: “When members of the community are afraid to speak out, hatred flourishes. We think the students of Stoughton deserve an education that includes learning about tolerance and bigotry, and that encourages dialogue about these difficult issues. In short, we think the students deserve teachers like Ms. Martin, but we fear there will be fewer of them as a consequence of her unjust punishment.”
After another pair of anti-Semitic incidents followed the first earlier this year, Stoughton High School Principal Juliette Miller engaged the Anti-Defamation League at the high school to bring a program for students, faculty, staff and parents over the next two years.