Montgomery County elected officials, school administrators and Jewish community leaders came under fire from parents on Wednesday for their response to anti-Semitic acts in the county.
“What is being done to educate the students” about the effect hateful incidents have on others, parent Stephanie Murdock asked Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, who was a panelist at the forum, held at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville and organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Murdock said her son’s school, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, left her with only minor assurances and little information after he reported a classmate drawing swastikas in class.
Smith offered his own reassurances about the school’s curriculum, but told Murdock to keep speaking up about an incident if the response “does not meet your meet needs, and … [that response] does not meet mine, frankly.”
Murdock was the first community member to speak up, but the stories of anti-Semitism did not stop with her.
Kathy Katz told another panelist, Police Chief Tom Manger, that her teenage son was confronted by a resident on Gainsborough Road while walking home from Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.
“Are you a Jew?” the man asked, according to Katz. “I don’t want you bringing bad luck on my house. From now on you walk on the other side of the street,” he said before walking into his house and slamming the door, according to Katz.
Katz reported the incident to police, but they could only document it, and not pursue it as a crime. Manger reaffirmed the incident was not a crime, but praised Katz’s willingness to speak up.
“It is something we want to document because if [later on] something occurs in that neighborhood, we’ve got some place to start with our investigation,” he said.
Speaking up and “being a good witness” was a repeated plea the police chief made to parents. He explained that if someone is fearful to intervene when an incident happens, taking note of details, such as a color and brand of car, will help police investigate a situation later.
Panelists were keen to avoid talking about the presidential election, and rarely mentioned President-elect Donald Trump by name. But attendees pressed the issue.
“Assuming we have four years of additional material, from a man who has been uninhibitedly spilling hatred and mocking every group I can think of, I think we have a national emergency,” said Kay Elfant, who is Jewish, but not a parent of a student.
Manger responded that the federal government has limited influence over how Montgomery County is policed. He added that he worked with the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and intends to work with Trump.
During a speech before the question-and-answer session, Smith, who became superintendent in February 2016, said he believes Montgomery County is better off in terms of hate crimes than other places he has worked.
County Executive Ike Leggett agreed, but “it says an awful lot about the rest of the nation,” if Montgomery County is better off, he responded.
So how accepting is Montgomery County? Less so in 2016 than in 2015.
County police investigated 87 hate crimes in 2016 compared to 66 in 2015, according to Manger. Most crimes in 2016 involved graffiti or vandalism and were motivated by the victim’s religion. When the crime was motivated by religion, most victims were Jewish.
These numbers are likely smaller than the number of crimes that actually happened because it is estimated only one in three hate crimes are reported, according to a 2016 Department of Justice study.
Manger added the Montgomery County Police Department uses a broader definition for hate crimes than the FBI. For example, if a swastika is drawn on a school bus window, the FBI is unlikely to consider that a hate crime, but MCPD will.
Another parent, Taly Lind, said her son goes to Westland Middle School, which had one of its bathrooms defaced with swastikas by students last November. She thinks school administrators do not fully understand how pervasive hateful incidents can be.
“According to Chief Manger’s definition of a hate crime, there are hate crimes going on at that school on a regular basis in terms of slurs that are being used against homosexuals,” Lind said.
She characterized the programs the school uses to teach students about hate crimes as “eye-roll worthy” in the students’ perspectives.
Smith admitted the school curriculum is not “exactly what is needed in 2017.”
Other panelists included CESJDS Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus; JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber; Seth Gordon-Lipkin, of the Anti-Defamation League and Saida Hentati, MCPS parent community coordinator.