DANVERS – For the second time in two weeks, school officials were alerted to a swastika found in a student bathroom at the Holten Richmond Middle School on Nov. 18.
Meanwhile, Danvers police and school administrators believe that a young boy under 12 drew racist and homophobic graffiti that also included two swastikas written with a black Sharpie on a bathroom wall on Nov. 8. That information was disclosed in a Nov. 8 police report obtained by the Journal.
The swastika incidents at the middle school come as the town struggles with allegations of racist and homophobic locker room hazing and offensive text chats, including a joke about the Holocaust, among some members of the 2019-2020 Danvers High hockey team that has roiled the town. In response, the town held a vigil at the library pavilion on Nov. 20.
“Today we were extremely concerned that another incident of antisemitic graffiti occurred when a swastika symbol was found in a student bathroom,” Superintendent Lisa Dana said in a Nov. 19 statement.
The middle school’s administration and police are investigating, Dana said, “and will take appropriate disciplinary and/or legal action in addition to providing counseling and therapeutic support.”
Dana condemned the act. “At this time we do know know who did this or why,” Dana said.
According to a police report, School Resource Officer Jason Skane got a look at the swastika discovered around 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 18 in a boys’ third-floor bathroom.
“I noticed a swastika on the left tile wall, adjacent and approximately level with the sink and approximately three feet from the floor.” The ¾-inch by ¾-inch swastika appeared to have been lightly drawn in pencil and drawn backwards.
After looking at surveillance footage from 7 to 8:26 a.m. that day, Skane saw 10 students who had gone into the bathroom and they were later interviewed. Nine of the 10 said they had not seen it. The one student who did, and two others who were in the bathroom at the time, left to report it.
Skane wrote that footage from the day before proved inconclusive. No one from maintenance or the night cleaners saw the swastika.
Skane said it was unclear when it had been drawn or how long it had been there. Skane said the middle school conducted assemblies “to educate the HRMS population on the history and meaning of a swastika, as most do not appear to know the full meaning behind it.”
“We are very proud of the students who sought out a trusted adult to report it,” Dana said in her statement. It’s the kind of behavior school officials had been encouraging, she added. The middle school planned “team meetings to educate students about the significance of the swastika and what it symbolizes, both from a historical perspective and in a modern context, using content from the Anti-Defamation League.” Dana said the school will continue to offer counseling through its social workers.
“It’s obviously very upsetting and disappointing,” said Dr. Dutrochet “Dee” Djoko, chair of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee. He noted that the committee, which was formerly called the Danvers Committee for Diversity, was formed in 1998 as a result of antisemitic graffiti in a school.
“This is not new,” he said of such incidents. He said this should be a call to action for parents, teachers and residents. “This should really give us more energy to do something about it. It just gives me more resolve.”
In his report, Skane said he watched three hours of camera footage from Nov. 8, the day the first set of graffiti was discovered. He spotted 31 students who went into the bathroom for extended periods of time. With the help of the assistant principal, all 31 were identified and interviewed, but none took responsibility. Police used handwriting samples and a unique feature of the writing to identify a student.
Assistant Principal Patrick Hamilton conducted a second interview with a boy in part because the student was under 12 and could not be charged criminally. The student admitted to writing the graffiti after finding a Sharpie on the ground. “He stated … he got the sayings that he wrote on the wall off the Internet,” the report said.
The student’s father was notified for a follow-up meeting. The student will not face criminal charges because of his young age, but will be disciplined according to the school’s student handbook and receive further assistance from school staff, Skane wrote.
The town has been dealing with fallout from a Boston Globe report of an interview with an unnamed hockey player on the 2019-2020 team regarding allegations of racist and homophobic hazing in the locker room along with an offensive group chat.
Concern about the team’s conduct came to the attention of school officials after reports some senior hockey players displayed a Trump 2020 flag at the head of a senior graduation “rolling rally” on June 11.
No criminal charges were filed. A police investigation report found the behavior “distasteful and offensive,” but it did not rise to the level of criminal activity. The school’s investigation found no evidence coaches were aware of what was going on. The former hockey coach, police Sgt. Steve Baldassare, who heads up the department’s community relations/juvenile division, was put on leave, reinstated and later resigned without an explanation.
School officials have said they put in place anti-bias workshops for players, required hockey coaches to take courses on bulling, hazing and inappropriate behaviors, and took unknown action toward employees and students, actions they said they were not allowed to describe.
However, the extent of what was alleged was redacted in reports and only described in broad-brush terms by school officials, who said the need for secrecy was due to legal privacy concerns for minor students and staff.
This caused an uproar among some residents and officials over a perceived lack of transparency and accountability. Some called for the superintendent to resign. School officials, who said they were not trying to sweep things under the rug, later admitted their communication with the community “fell short.”
“I’m concerned about that, what happened with the hockey team,” said Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham of Beverly, whose temple includes members from Danvers. “I don’t have a word for that,” she said about the alleged conduct, but added, of the school officials response, “They didn’t handle it well … They didn’t do it out in the open.” She said it’s important leaders do whatever they can to deal with such situations.
“It’s not clear who has really been held accountable,” she said. Adler said she has met with some Danvers teenagers who told her whatever the adults are trying to do is ineffective.
Rob Leshin, a Precinct 5 Town Meeting member and a member of the board of B’nai Abraham, said he attended a portion of a recent School Committee meeting at which the superintendent was asked to resign.
“My take was the leadership, especially the School Committee, were convinced they had done XYZ,” he said. However, the committee did not seem to grasp how alarming the allegations were and seemed to be unprepared for these types of conversations. “They just weren’t getting it.
They weren’t grasping the gravity of it at all.”
“They have to come out full force, full transparency, what happened,” Leshin said. Sometimes it takes a big event to cause change, and he said some parents were pleased with the administration’s quick response to the initial swastika incident at the middle school.
Meanwhile, the Lappin Foundation has planned an Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium for Danvers. According to Deborah Coltin, executive director of the foundation, six sessions are planned for 25 high school students and 25 adults in January and February.