Two weeks after a swastika was found in a bathroom at Scarsdale High School, three students told high school administrators Sept. 26 they saw offensive graffiti in one of the boys’ bathrooms.
According to an email sent to parents by high school principal Kenneth Bonamo, the graffiti consisted of hate speech against different groups of people. The words and images weren’t easily visible or discernible, but upon closer look, it was apparent to officials that the words and/or images were of a hateful nature.
“This speaks to the reality that some of the furnishings in our bathrooms are many years old, and that components such as plastic stall walls or wooden doors can have markings of indeterminate age and meaning,” Bonamo wrote in the email to parents. “Such markings, even those that were painted or sanded over, can be modified or refreshed to create a newly offensive message.”
Students in the high school shared their reactions to the graffiti. Whether the incidents were “a tasteless joke or committed by someone who genuinely has hate in their soul toward others,” said junior Leah Breakstone, “it is unsettling to think an incident like this could happen at this day and age, specifically in Scarsdale, which has a significant Jewish population.”
Senior Rishabh Gharekhan said he was “shocked that people are defaming school property in such a hurtful manner.” He and several others said they consider the school to be a very accepting place and find it hard to imagine there are students who don’t respect that view.
Some suggested curriculum changes might be effective to prevent such incidents. “Covering the darker parts of American history, including the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis in America and white supremacists, while disheartening to learn about in class, can make a difference in our school’s community,” junior Jonah Miller said.
Genie Enders, also a junior, found the graffiti incidents “horrific and they make me fear for my safety in school.” She suggested a public denouncement via the school PA system might increase awareness among the high school population. “I think these heinous incidents happen because the people who commit them know it’s nearly impossible for them to be caught, and we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly forgetful and ignorant of the gravity that these symbols have,” she said.
Scarsdale Detective Lt. Brendan Kellaher said police were notified of the latest discovery immediately, but it’s likely that the graffiti was added to over time, and there wasn’t a way to pinpoint exactly when it started. He also said he doesn’t believe this incident is connected to the swastika found two weeks ago.
After police were called, the custodial staff removed the graffiti and continued to inspect bathrooms for additional markings during nightly cleanup.
Kellaher said the investigation is open, and the police department is following up with the custodial staff and the students who first reported the incident.
Two weeks ago, Bonamo notified parents, also via email, that a swastika was found in a bathroom at the high school. In that incident, although the police weren’t called by the school district, detectives later responded to the high school to open an investigation.
“When we think there’s a sense of urgent danger, such as a bomb threat, we contact the police right away,” Bonamo said. “When there is no imminent threat, we contact them as a matter of course.”
Police did not respond until after the original graffiti was removed, so detectives couldn’t view it, Kellaher said, and that investigation has since closed.
Kellaher said the police department is working with the school district to organize an assembly for the students to talk about graffiti with hateful undertones as a way to combat this way of thinking.
“We tried to be proactive and suggest a symposium with the district attorney’s office and talk about it with the students,” Kellaher said. “We hope that will be preventative.”
Bonamo said the district’s Dignity, Inclusion and Belonging team met Oct. 2 to determine what kind of programming would be most effective.
“We appreciate the offers of assembly programs that we have from the police and DA’s office,” Bonamo said. “Although assemblies can be effective for certain types of presentations, small group discussions allow for a more interactive format, so we are looking to see what balance we want to achieve in designing effective programming for our students.”
The Dignity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee was established in Scarsdale Schools several years ago to ensure the district meets the needs of transgender students. Last spring, the team decided to focus on “the extent to which we are an inclusive school community and what we might do to be even more so, and give every member a genuine sense of belonging,” Bonamo said.
The national Dignity for All Students Act requires school staff members to respond actively to reported or observed incidents of discriminatory behavior, and when individual students are brought forward, they are disciplined and counseled as appropriate.
Bonamo said while hateful graffiti is more of a large message rather than an interaction between students, the district wants to be clear that the message is inappropriate and is not representative of the district’s values and beliefs.
If the student that is responsible for the graffiti is found, the district will impose discipline in line with its code of conduct. However, that’s unlikely when messages are found in a bathroom.
“When we find messages that are troubling and that can offend students of different backgrounds, we feel it is important to send a message to everyone that our community does not stand for such ideas,” Bonamo said.
As a way to address this early on, Bonamo said the school would initiate programming that is educational in nature in order to put things into perspective.
“In some cases, the students responsible for using inappropriate language or symbols are unaware of their historical meaning or the level of distress they cause members of the community, so we must start with education and raising sensitivity around these issues,” Bonamo said. “There is also a K-12 team looking at these issues that will be focusing on the elementary and middle levels.”
State and county officials also weighed in last week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said there is no tolerance for anti-Semitism and bigotry of any kind, and he directed the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to assist Scarsdale school officials and local law enforcement in their investigation. County Executive George Latimer also voiced his disgust at the hate symbols and said the Westchester County Human Rights Commission is prepared to work with the school.
— with reporting by Ariel Weinsaft