Earlier this month students at Montpelier High School were rattled to learn that someone had painted a swastika with feces on the wall of the gender-neutral bathroom. But according to students and at least one parent, that incident is not isolated. It also happened at a time when reported antisemitic incidents in New England are at an all-time high, per the Anti-Defamation League, and attempts to pass a bill standardizing Holocaust education for Vermont students grades 6 to 12 have stalled for three legislative sessions in a row.
Also notable: although an annual full day educators’ workshop sponsored by the Vermont Holocaust Memorial has been offered to Vermont educators since 2018, no teacher from Montpelier schools has attended during that time, according to the organization’s president and co-founder Debora Steinerman.
The Hitler Youth Group Chat
During a unit on the Holocaust taught as part of a Montpelier High School (MHS) world history class in the 2021–2022 school year, a student who asked to remain anonymous told The Bridge that a group of boys created a group chat on social media they dubbed “Hitler Youth.”
“The teacher said not to, but there wasn’t anything else besides that,” the student said, adding that they didn’t make a formal complaint because “the teacher already said something and that was all that happened. … They weren’t very sensitive about the topic.”
At the end of the school year, the student said, one kid in the class gave a Nazi salute to a group of students including a person of color, a Jewish student, and a queer student and “told them he loved Hitler.”
That same year, graffiti under the stairs by the main entrance featured “a bunch of slurs and different stuff, and a swastika. There was the N-word and other slurs.” The school painted over it eventually, the student said.
Neither MHS principal Jason Gingold nor Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools superintendent Libby Bonesteel were available to comment. Both of their emails had a vacation responder set up saying they were each out of office since the school year ended on June 15.
A parent of a Montpelier High School student spoke to The Bridge, also on the condition of anonymity, about antisemitic incidents in Montpelier schools. One incident happened while the parent attended a class presentation at Main Street Middle School in 2018, the parent said, and the other involved her teen, who was targeted with antisemitism last year at MHS “to his face.”
“He asked [the students targeting him] to stop. They wouldn’t stop. He talked to the teacher. Nothing happened,” the parent said. Finally, her son made an official bullying report; the school investigated and confirmed the report. The parent did not know what consequences were put in place for the kids doing the bullying. But much like the case where a group of boys created a “Hitler Youth” group chat, simply talking to a teacher did not result in change according to those who spoke to The Bridge.
Similarly the same parent recalled an incident at the Main Street Middle School several years ago, when a school project asking students to present about a historical figure from the perspective of that person went horribly awry. A video of the incident showed a fifth grader presenting themself as Hitler, while offering false information that was never corrected by the teacher, even after the student — playing the role of Hitler — cheerfully said “I killed six million Jews! And I also did good.”
The parent complained, and the school held a “restorative circle,” the parent said, during which time it became clear the students did not understand why the parent was so upset.
“If that student had gotten up and done a different interpretation of Hitler the parent said (noting the objection was not about playing the role of Hitler, but about incorrect information). “But they didn’t. The adults in the room let it happen, and then didn’t react appropriately in the aftermath. It’s not the kid — the kid was 10. They didn’t know.”
So five years later, when students — but not parents, initially — received an email from Montpelier High School about the swastika on the bathroom wall, that same parent reported the incident to the Montpelier Police Department, the Anti-Defamation League, the Vermont Attorney General’s office, and the federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
As a result of the swastika incident, the parent — a member of the Jewish community in Vermont and an administrator in higher education — started creating a professional development event in partnership with the Vermont Agency of Education for middle and high school teachers.
“From this incident, my hope is that we will get meaningful education and change. Make an effort to hire black teachers. Make an effort to put requirements that these things get studied. That the students learn about it. And maybe things will change,” the parent said.
The MHS swastika incident took place on June 2, just three weeks after the Vermont legislature adjourned, and — for the third time in three sessions — left two bills in committee that would standardize holocaust education for grades 6 through 12.
Two Identical Bills
Although both bills are stuck in the House and Senate Education committees, Steinerman said she expects the identical S.87 and H.294 — the “Vermont Holocaust Studies Act” — to be picked up again when the legislature convenes in January 2024. Until then, Vermont remains the only state in New England without a mandate for Holocaust education.
“I’ve been frustrated by both legislative inactivity, and a sort of quiet avoidance on the part of school officials,” said Vermont Rep. Avram Patt, D-Lamoille-Washington, who introduced H.294 along with 18 other representatives in coordination with Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden-Southeast, who spearheaded the Senate bill. “I’m not pointing specifically at Montpelier but this stuff happens. It’s taken as a one-off kind of incident, where the person, whoever did it, must not have understood what they were doing. We don’t know that.”
In past legislative sessions, Patt has introduced similar bills, he said, including one in 2022 co-sponsored by Rep. Becca Balint. “It didn’t go anywhere,” Patt said. “There was a cloak of silence. People were kind of hesitant to bring it up.”
About H.294, Patt noted, “it’s very clear in the bill that a major reason for doing this is … so people understand what genocide is and should recognize it when it’s happening now.”
The section on “Findings” in S.87 and H.294 in part states: “Education is key to combating hate. By learning about the Holocaust, students will understand how stereotypes, prejudice, and religious and ethnic hatred can escalate to atrocity. The lessons of the Holocaust not only teach about the past but also shape our future as a human race. Students must understand that it happened and it can happen again.”
Swastika Incident Follow Up at MHS
While the administration at the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools and Montpelier High School has been hard to reach due to vacations, an email that went out to the school community on June 14 said that despite reviewing video footage from the morning of June 2, school officials have not identified the responsible party.
“Our response has been to support our community members, both students and staff, including:
Initial informational emails denouncing the act
We had a staff conversation and continued to monitor the halls and bathrooms and support students and staff.
MHS continues offering support from counselors and social workers to help individuals.
MRPS continues to offer Talkspace as a resource.
When we return in August, we will continue to work with Building Fearless Futures to educate students and staff on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a district, we are beginning an equity audit with an outside consultant group and teaching all students about Hazing, Harassment, and Bullying. We recognize more work to do to create a healthy, safe, and community-based environment. And we recognize the urgency of this work to have students and staff feel safe.”
Antisemitic Incidents at an All Time High (Except in Vermont)
While reports of antisemitic incidents in New England and across the country have spiked, the Anti-Defamation League’s annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents found they decreased in Vermont from 2021 to 2022.
In 2022, the ADL recorded “a total of 204 antisemitic incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism in the New England Region (covering Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) in 2022, a 32 percent increase from 2021 and the highest number of antisemitic incidents ever recorded in the New England region. … Nationally, the ADL recorded 3,697 antisemitic incidents in 2022, the highest total since the ADL started tracking such data in 1979. ”
The report goes on to say: “The number of antisemitic incidents remains at a historical high in New England, with all states other than Vermont recording an increase year over year. Throughout the other states in the ADL’s New England region, the ADL tracked 19 incidents in Rhode Island (up from 17 incidents in 2021), 6 in Vermont (down from 15 in 2021), 14 in New Hampshire (up from 7 in 2021), and 13 in Maine (up from 6 in 2021).”