SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — It has not been a quiet month for South Orange Middle School. Not only was the school briefly evacuated Dec. 8 — due to a gas odor, before the South Orange Fire Department gave the all clear — but the school is still dealing with the aftereffects of finding a swastika drawn inside a bathroom stall.
The SOMS response to the recent incident has been measured, focused on moving forward rather than dwelling on the past — at least as it applies to students.
“We are committed to ensuring that our school is a safe environment for each and every student and staff member, and to valuing and honoring and our commonalities and our differences,” SOMS Principal Lynn Irby wrote in a Dec. 1 email to the community. “Sadly, we recently discovered a swastika drawn in a stall in one of our student restrooms. We are deeply concerned that one or more of our students would find this offensive, insensitive and divisive symbol to be funny or acceptable.”
According to Irby, the offensive image was removed by maintenance staff immediately after its detection and the school immediately began an investigation to determine who vandalized the bathroom.
Without wasting any time, the school jumped to use the incident as “an important teachable moment,” according to Irby.
Several actions were taken; all social studies classes on Dec. 1 engaged in teacher-facilitated discussions regarding students’ civic and community responsibility to welcome everyone; how to ensure everyone is supported; and how to create a supportive environment at SOMS. The middle school also took the opportunity to remind all students, staff, faculty and families that the school has “zero tolerance for racially, ethnically or other types of insensitive behaviors.”
Irby sent a second email to the SOMS community on Dec. 9, providing more information regarding the previous week’s response. The school provided social studies teachers with talking points to assist them in addressing the charged topic, and held a series of discussions among students, between students and teachers, and with a local rabbi whose child attends SOMS.
On Dec. 7, the schools held a meeting with a group of local rabbis, parents and school district personnel — the second such meeting held at SOMS this year — to strategize and generate ideas for a comprehensive action plan. Irby called the meeting “honest, insightful and productive.”
But Irby also pointed out that the work being done at SOMS needs to continue at home.
“We ask for the partnership and support of our parents and guardians in talking with your children about the important role each of us has in making sure our school is a safe environment, where each student feels respected and included,” Irby wrote in the Dec. 1 letter sent to students’ homes. She provided two resources to help initiate meaningful conversations about bias with children: http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-49-spring-2015/feature/hate-hallways and https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WguCc9C58l29zjcbfKIW1xg_NTUPjg4zeZpXnQ_E9Pg/edit.
“We thank you for your support or our shared objective of creating a safe and welcoming educational environment for our students,” Irby concluded.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to remove information in deference to a child’s well-being.