MARIETTA — The students responsible for antisemitic graffiti in two Cobb County high schools this month have been found and will be punished, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said Thursday.
Those charges are proceeding through “the disciplinary tribunal process required by Georgia law,” Ragsdale said, speaking at the Cobb school board’s monthly work session, a public meeting that precedes the board’s evening voting session.
Earlier this month, a pair of swastikas and “Hail Hitler” were found scrawled on a bathroom wall at Pope High School. Several days later, another pair of swastikas were found on a bathroom wall at Lassiter High School.
Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, of east Cobb’s Temple Kol Emeth, immediately condemned the incidents, and was invited to address students at Pope the day after the swastikas were found.
While saying he would not speak to the particulars of the investigation, Ragsdale said the recommended punishments are “sufficiently significant that the board members could likely hear it on appeal.” He asked them not to comment on the cases before hearing any appeals, lest it present the students charged the “opportunity to challenge the discipline.”
“Some may consider our response unduly punitive,” Ragsdale continued. “I disagree with them. It reflects the importance of this district’s schools being environments in which all students have the opportunities for and from an … internationally competitive education, and our expectation behaviors like this will not occur.”
Ragsdale also said the graffiti “may have begun as some sort of social media dare.” Nevertheless, he said, “the district does not, and will not, tolerate hate in any form.”
The district received a wave of criticism after images of the graffiti were posted on social media.
The uproar stemmed, in part, from the incidents themselves, but also from the district’s response. District spokeswoman Nan Kiel initially released a statement in which she said the district finds it unacceptable “anytime students misbehave, and in this case disrespect, individual students, people groups, and their school.”
The Anti-Defamation League found that lacking, and said Kiel and the district had “failed to characterize the incident as antisemitic.”
“As hate crimes surge in Georgia and across the country, it’s unacceptable that Cobb County Schools is failing to address or even name antisemitic incidents occurring in their own schools, and refusing to engage with ADL to respond effectively,” Allison Padilla-Goodman, the vice president of the ADL’s southern division, said.
Sernovitz also criticized the district for having scheduled its monthly board meeting on Sept. 16, which coincided this year with Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. Following his criticism, the meeting was rescheduled to Thursday.
Even U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, weighed in on the controversy when addressing Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs on Yom Kippur.
Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn also attended a Yom Kippur service at the request of Sernovitz, where he stood at the front and read from the Torah.
Thursday, Scamihorn said he has begun work on one of the rabbi’s requests: a board resolution condemning antisemitism.
“That resolution isn’t ready yet,” he said. “I of course want to collaborate with my board members before bringing anything forward and want to take the time to get it right. But I want our community to hear that from me.”
‘We don’t feel safe’
The superintendent’s comments Thursday followed the public comment part of the meeting where several residents and two rabbis said some Jewish people in the county no longer feel Cobb schools are safe for their children.
“Right now, our students do not feel safe in some of our schools in Cobb County,” Sernovitz, said, addressing the board. “Our kids should not go to school and know they’re going to get picked on because of who they are.”
One woman said her son had been bullied a decade ago in Cobb schools for being Jewish, and criticized the message Pope High School Principal Tom Flugum sent parents after the incident at his school this month. In that message, he decried the graffiti without mentioning what it said, as well as a separate incident of vandalism that occurred the same day.
“The response from the Pope principal sends a loud message that the sinks torn from the walls are far more important than the safety and wellbeing of his Jewish students who were targeted,” the woman said. “We are telling you that we don’t feel safe in your schools.”
‘No place for hate’
Sernovitz and a handful of other speakers Thursday asked that the district implement an “allyship” program, one that would “continue to create a school district that cares about inclusion and diversity.”
Speaking before the meeting, board member Dr. Jaha Howard said he was “extremely interested” in adopting such a program.
“And also, we can examine what we (had) in place that we have recently got rid of, and maybe we can bring some things back and make it better,” he said.
Howard was likely referring to the “No Place for Hate” program the district had offered in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League.
The district canceled that program this spring and removed references to it on its website after the Board of Education passed a resolution along party lines banning the teaching of critical race theory, Sernovitz told reporters after the meeting.
Sernovitz said he did not believe the ban on critical race theory would prevent the district from reintroducing No Place for Hate or any other allyship program.
“I think critical race theory has nothing to do with the school district, the ADL program has nothing to do with critical race theory,” he said.
And Sernovitz said Ragsdale’s comments showed progress was being made on the issue.
“I think that, for the first time since this happened, I think the Jewish community is beginning to feel heard,” he said. But he wasn’t done lobbying the district, he added. “The moment we let up is the moment everything stops happening. And we have to keep our foot on the pedal, to make sure that we’re not done until we actually see the systemic changes that we’re looking for.”