Antisemitism Program Offered for Middle Schoolers
Students as young as middle-school age are making antisemitic remarks and anti-Jewish images, said Gayle Colucci, who retired last June as culture and climate coordinator for the Cranford Public School District in Cranford, New Jersey.
Colucci said students are learning hate through social media and at home. And that saddens her.
“I knew what our education was. I knew how much our teachers were doing,” said Colucci, who was an anti-bullying specialist for the district. “I knew how much our superintendent was involved in creating a safe climate.”
In an effort to counter antisemitism in schools, Cranford middle schoolers participated in a new professional development session designed for students. This training was launched in March 2023 by the Diversity Council on Global Education and Citizenship at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. The consortium is part of the Holocaust Resource Center of the university.
“There has been a rise in antisemitic issues with our students,” Colucci said. She reached out to the Diversity Council “to see how they could help us and they created a wonderful program for school assemblies.”
“There is a notable rise in antisemitic comments and vandalism among school-age students, primarily in middle school,” said Sarah Coykendall, managing assistant director of the university’s Holocaust Resource Center and the Diversity Council. “The school districts reach out to us in the hope of getting professional development geared toward students on combating antisemitism.”
The Diversity Council is a network of more than 130 school districts and community organizations, all eligible to participate in the session.
“We feel very fortunate to be able to provide this training and we’re thankful that students are going to be able to receive it,” said Coykendall, who gives the presentations along with center director Adara Goldberg.
Coykendall said it is unfortunate that younger children are expressing hate in any form at their schools.
“In middle school, students are really exploring the things that they hear for the first time. They don’t quite understand what they’re saying and the ramifications of what they’re saying until these incidents happen and they are brought to the attention of the administration.”
The professional development session “helps students recognize hate symbols through an understanding of prejudice and conscious and unconscious forms of bias,” Coykendall said.
Students are taught about the “pyramid of hate,” a concept and activity that demonstrates how escalating levels of attitudes and behavior grow in complexity from biased ideas to discrimination and acts of violence.
“Students have the active ability to prevent instances of discrimination and prejudice amongst their peers in their school and local communities,” Coykendall said.
From March to June 2023, the Holocaust Resource Center and Diversity Council gave the hourlong presentation to more than 2,000 middle and high school students.
Teachers appreciated the program because antisemitism was a topic they wanted to address with their students, Coykendall said.
“Sometimes they don’t feel that they have the information necessary to have those conversations. So, although this presentation was designed for students, it really helps get teachers over that hurdle into having these dialogues in their own classroom.”
The center and council offer additional professional development training for teachers.
Center Director Goldberg said that her educational organization is proactive.
“We don’t wait for an incident to occur and try to repair a situation,” she said. “Our approach is to be as proactive as possible as an educational resource institution. We want to ensure that schools feel supported in addressing challenging topics, whether it’s an Islamophobic incident or slurs against members of the LGBTQ community.”
“Some incidents rise to a level of hate crime that results in prosecution,” said Colucci. “We do not sit on it at all. We are incredibly proactive.”
The Diversity Council wants to empower students “to be changers in their own community and be the ones who make a difference,” Goldberg said. “So hopefully, future students don’t encounter the same type of prejudice that they may witness.”
To learn more about the Holocaust Resource Center and Diversity Council, visit kean.edu/diversitycouncil.
Ellen Braunstein is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.