Westbrook Elementary staff members are still reeling from a Jan. 13 incident where a student drew multiple Nazi symbols in a restroom and made antisemitic remarks to staff at the Bethesda school. The antisemitic nature of the incident was not shared with families until Principal Karen Cox sent out a community letter on Feb. 10.
Cox informed families in a message on the day of the incident that emergency vehicles responded to school to pick up a student, but that classes were not impacted. She did not mention that the incident involved antisemitic symbols and speech.
“We had a student who needed services from outside providers today, so multiple vehicles were on the scene. Mom was contacted and brought her child home,” Cox wrote on Jan. 13. “Thank you for reaching out about your concerns. Instruction and school programming continued as normal.”
Cox’s February letter revealed the specific nature of the event for the first time and outlined the measures taken by school administration in the aftermath. The incident did not involve any other students and was contained within the restroom, she wrote.
“The Westbrook staff followed MCPS Hate/Bias Incident protocols and are still dealing with the situation,” Cox’s letter read. “While students were unaware of the incident and antisemitic remarks, multiple staff members were involved.”
The school district’s protocols for addressing instances of hate bias can include reporting to the principal, conducting a school investigation, communicating to parents, issuing disciplinary action and providing supportive measures to involved parties, according to a recent presentation before the Board of Education.
School administration met with impacted staff members afterward to hear firsthand about “the pain and fear they experienced,” according to the principal’s letter.
“While the initial dialogue with the Restorative Justice facilitators was helpful for some staff, it is also clear to me that … our initial efforts to implement restorative practices haven’t effectively matched the scope of the harm caused by this incident and met the specific needs of our staff,” she wrote.
Her letter did not expound on what she meant by the reference to staff needs or what led her to conclude that school protocols had not met those needs, but stated that the administration is in the process of “establishing a staff-wide healing restorative circle to continue the healing process.”
Montgomery County Public Schools defines its Restorative Justice model as a social justice platform that approaches incidents from a framework of “building community, self-care and conflict resolution,” according to its website. The school district began systemwide implementation of the model in 2018, and parents have since questioned its effectiveness.
The county has experienced a high rate of antisemitic acts in recent months, including multiple instances of hate-based graffiti and flyers, and even a physical attack. New survey data from the American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy group, suggests the spike is part of a national trend.
The AJC surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,057 American Jews over 18 and found that 41% believe their safety is less secure than it was a year ago — a 10% increase from AJC’s 2021 findings.
The survey also found that 9 out of 10 Americans agree antisemitism affects society as a whole.
“Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem — it’s a societal problem,” AJC Regional Director Alan Ronkin told MoCo360. “Just like we wouldn’t ask the Black community to solve anti-Black racism on their own, we can’t ask the Jewish community to solve antisemitism on their own.”
In her Feb. 10 letter, Cox said she wanted to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that antisemitism in any form would not be tolerated at Westbrook.
“These incidents jeopardize our Jewish students’ safety and diminish our whole school’s culture and climate,” she wrote.
She ended her letter by urging families to “respect the sensitivity of the incident and the privacy of their peers” while the school administration continues to work with students, staff, parents and community leaders toward healing.
If MoCo360 keeps you informed, connected and inspired, circle up and join our community by becoming a member today. Your membership supports our community journalism and unlocks special benefits.