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Federal investigation finds Kyrene School District failed to stop anti-Semitic harassment for months

The U.S. Department of Education announced that Kyrene School District has committed to taking steps to address the rise of anti-Semitic bullying.

TEMPE, Ariz. — The East Valley's Kyrene School District failed to address the months-long anti-Semitic harassment of an eighth-grade student after the bullying had been brought to the school's attention, according to the findings of a federal investigation released Tuesday. 

The report by U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found that over five months during the 2018-'19 school year, one student faced such severe bullying that she was forced to choose homeschooling instead of continuing with the district.

The Kyrene school where the harassment occurred wasn't named in the report. 12News has confirmed it was Altadena Middle School in Ahwatukee. The district covers parts of Phoenix, Tempe and Chandler.

Investigators found the school had interviewed only the students involved and conducted informal interviews with staff. District officials failed to provide new safety measures for the student outside of "no-contact" orders to the abusers.

Despite the abuse being reported to the school, the investigation found that the district had not taken school-wide measures for seven months after the report. Even then, the only school-wide response was a staff-only training course. The student body was not addressed.

Kyrene superintendent 'deeply affected'

Kyrene Superintendent Laura Toenjes responded to the report in a prepared statement:

"As a person of Jewish faith, I was deeply affected by this investigation... I will work very closely with our Board to ensure every student of every faith, every race, and every background feels safe, valued, and respected inside our schools."

A resolution agreement with the Department of Education commits the district to ensuring there is no discrimination in any activity.

The district says that it has already started developing plans to address the resolution and will review all district policies later in the year.

Last May, Kyrene approved its first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy (ACB).

Holocaust education is part of Kyrene’s eighth-grade curriculum, according to Erin Helm Helm, Kyrene's vice president for marketing and communications.

Fallout for students, staff

The students involved were held accountable for their in-school actions, according to the district.

Helm told 12 News via email that "no employees were removed as a result of this investigation, and neither was that recommended by the OCR."

A new principal was assigned to Altadena in 2020, but that was unrelated to the investigation, Helm said. The previous principal is employed at a different Kyrene school, she said.

The victim was not identified in the report. She left the district in 2019.

“As we see a distressing rise in reports of anti-Semitism on campuses across the country, I commend Kyrene School District #28 for committing today to take essential steps to ensure that no other students will have to suffer anti-Semitic harassment or other harassment based on their shared ancestry,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. 

Some harassment too extreme for report

According to the report, nine students had targeted the girl with anti-Semitic harassment for months because of her Jewish heritage.

Harassment from the students included derogatory terms.

The investigation also found that those students commented, “I hear you are good at [sexually explicit content] because Jews are so good at gasping for air,” and would ask her, “How do you get a Jewish girl’s number?” then lift her sleeve.

It was also reported that the students had been making jokes about the Holocaust, yelling in German accents, and marching and saluting like Nazi soldiers.

Video was captured of the nine students holding a mock-Nazi meeting in a school classroom.

Multiple comments by the students in question had to be censored entirely in the report due to their content.

OCR said that the girl was able to provide video and social media messages of this behavior to the school principal. 

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How school, district responded 

The principal told OCR that, in response to the bullying, counseling was made available to the student. However, the investigation found that there were no district records of a meeting between counselors and the girl.

After the abuse was reported, the school principal allegedly had a series of interviews with the students who had been perpetuating the abuse. According to the report, however, the principal only met with school staff on an "informal" basis about the abuse.

He said that his staff "didn't see anything."

As the student provided more evidence of the ongoing harassment, the district responded by changing her class schedule so she would no longer be with the nine students who had been targeting her.

Although district administrators repeatedly met with the student, it was found that they provided no safety options outside of setting up no-contact orders.

OCR found that the student had been "subjected to a hostile environment, as there were numerous incidents occurring over the course of approximately five months related to the student’s Jewish ancestry."

According to the department, the principal "failed to provide timely, specific, and clear communication to school staff regarding the harassment of the student."

OCR found that the only school-wide response to the anti-Semitic harassment was staff-only training that took place seven months after the harassment had first been reported.

Resolution and next steps

In response to the investigation, the Kyrene School District has entered a resolution agreement to take steps to address the growing concern of anti-Semitic abuse.

The district’s commitments in the voluntary resolution agreement include: 

  • Addressing the student’s academic and counseling needs resulting from the harassment.
  • Reviewing and revising its policies and procedures to address Title VI’s prohibition of harassment based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry, by clarifying in its policies and procedures that the prohibition against harassment includes harassment based on Jewish ancestry.
  • Providing training to district staff regarding the district’s obligation to respond to complaints of harassment based on race, color, or national origin.
  • Providing age-appropriate information programs for students to address harassment based on race, color, or national origin. And,
  • Conducting a climate survey to assess the prevalence of harassment in the student’s former school and provide suggestions for effective ways to address harassment.

The district said that the physical safety and social-emotional wellbeing of students were its highest priority, and plans are in place to "ensure that the District's commitment to inclusion is consistent throughout its practices."

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