NEWTON – Police are investigating a disturbing incident in which two three-inch swastikas were found drawn on the wall of a stall of a boys’ bathroom at Newton South High School earlier this month.
Then, less than a week later in the MetroWest community of Franklin, “graffiti depicting swastikas was found in a 3rd Floor Boys Bathroom,” principal Joshua Hanna wrote the school community about a June 9 incident unrelated to Newton’s. The high school promptly removed the two swastikas, started an investigation, contacted the Franklin Police Department, and pledged its cooperation with the law enforcement.
“As soon as our investigation is concluded and if we are able to identify the person(s) responsible, we will follow up with disciplinary consequences and education set out in the Franklin High School Handbook,” Hanna said in the statement, while pledging to “restore a sense of safety and support for all.”
The discovery in Newton on June 3 and the subsequent incident in Franklin come amid a rise in antisemitic incidents tracked by the Anti-Defamation League since the eruption of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last month.
“The investigation is ongoing and no individual has yet been identified,” Julie McDonough, director of communications for the Newton Public Schools, said in an email. Newton Police Lieutenant Bruce Apotheker also said in an email the incident is “still under investigation.”
In a note to the community, Mark Aronson, interim principal of the 1,869-student Newton South, stated “A student reported to a staff member that they had discovered two three-inch swastikas written on the tile in a boys’ room bathroom stall.”
The police report states the swastikas “were written in feces on the wall.” The student reported the incident around noon that day. The swastikas were found in a second floor bathroom, the police report said.
“As we know,” Aronson said, “antisemitism is on the rise in the world and this incident reminds us that we need to be vigilant. I continue to be saddened and angered by violations of our core values within our school community. As a school, we strive to create an inclusive and welcoming environment free of hate. We will continue this work and will not be deterred by this or any other incident like it.”
Aronson said the school followed protocols to address such incidents, which included informing police and the ADL, while also conducting an investigation to identify those who might have been involved. Aronson encouraged parents to have their children speak with their counselor or dean if they have any information about the incident.
The high school also was working to identify students who may have seen the swastikas to offer them support. “As always, any students who would like to process this are encouraged to reach out to a trusted adult,” Aronson said.
Pictures were taken of the graffiti before a custodian removed it, according to the police report, and investigators were looking into whether the school could access video of the area of the bathroom. It was pointed out that the MCAS test was being administered and there were not many students in the school at the time.
The incidents come as the ADL said information from its Center on Extremism shows antisemitic incidents during and after the military conflict between Israel and Hamas rose dramatically compared with the same time last year, peaking around May 20-21 before returning to baseline levels.
Robert Trestan, ADL New England regional director, said the discovery of swastikas at Newton South are part of a nationwide trend.
“What happened in Newton is disgusting and despicable and it’s part of much bigger trend we have been tracking across the country,” Trestan said.
“We saw Newton as one example,” Trestan said, “but in Los Angeles, Jews were assaulted,” referring to an incident on May 18 during which diners were attacked by protesters carrying Palestinian flags while eating outside a kosher restaurant. “And in New York, Jews have been assaulted,” Trestan said. “Is it a coincidence ‘Hitler was right’ trended on Twitter and was retweeted 17,000 times?”
Newton school officials have had to contend with such incidents in the past. In May 2019, a swastika and threatening language was found drawn on a desk at the F.A. Day Middle School.
A series of antisemitic incidents were reported at Newton North in both 2016 and 2017. The high school sits in a city and a region home to a large Jewish population. In fact, the Boston, Cambridge, and Newton metro area is home to the sixth largest Jewish population in the country at 284,000, according to the American Jewish Population Project of the Brandeis University Steinhardt Social Research Institute. The 4th Congressional District, which includes Newton, has 68,000 Jewish adults, according to the National Profile of the Jewish Electorate 2020, put out by Brandeis researchers last year.
Newton native and 4th District U.S. Representative Jake Auchincloss, who is Jewish and attended Newton North – the other public high school in the city – credited school leaders at Newton South for being “proactive” in addressing the incident.
“No child should feel unsafe at school,” the Democrat said in a statement, “and no one should experience antisemitism. The leaders at Newton South are being proactive in showing students this poisonous behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. As a broader community, we need to do the same as antisemitic actions spike across the country. Hatred has no place in our country – especially in our schools.”
Franklin also happens to fall within Auchincloss’s congressional district.
The more than 1,730-student Franklin High is also taking steps to address the act of antisemitism by creating an inclusive culture for students while pledging vigilance and “long-term efforts to promote and support a positive, hate-free school environment,” Hanna said.
As part of those steps, Superintendent Sara Ahern said in an email that an art teacher had created a large poster with an inspirational theme denouncing hate and providing an opportunity for students to reflect on the message. On Tuesday, they planned to meet with students, faculty and staff to help process the incident. The school’s World of Difference Peer Leaders were creating a slide show to be shared with students about the impact of hate symbols. The school also reached out to the ADL for support.
State Senate President Karen Spilka, whose district includes Franklin and who is a Jewish member of the Legislature, tweeted: “I am both heartbroken and outraged at the news of anti-Semitic graffiti found @FranklinHS. I wholeheartedly denounce this act of hate and am grateful to Principal Hanna and the school community for addressing it head on.”