I’ve waited two decades to write this letter, always putting it off. But now that some of your students have made international news with deplorable anti-Semitism, I can’t keep silent anymore, especially since your district “officials” are taking the moral high ground against this. If your school district is still anything like it was in the late 1990s, I am confident that much of the bigotry displayed by your students is influenced by their teachers and other Newport-Mesa staff members.
In the late ’90s, I taught at one of your middle schools, at the time considered one of the most problematic in Orange County. But most troubling for me, as a first-year teacher, was how anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry spread like wildfire among the staff, and nothing was done about it.
Take, for example, the lead sixth-grade core teacher, who once told me that she “skips” the lesson on Israel with her students (despite the fact that it was required) and suggested that I do the same. Of course, she could have been a leftist teacher who didn’t agree with Israel’s policies, but that’s not the case. When the school’s computer lab was named after a teacher who recently died, she told me, in a tone implying that it was his own fault, “He was GAY. He died of AIDS!” And during the previous school year, she and other teachers were suspected of witch-hunting a teacher thought to be gay—so much so that he was forced to resign.
This sixth-grade “leader,” who was handsomely rewarded by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, wasn’t very different from the computer-lab teacher, who told me and other teachers that the school district is “Jewing” her by not paying her a higher salary. The other teachers remained silent, but I felt I had to do something.
When I told the assistant principal, he was dismissive of my concerns since she probably wouldn’t be at the school district very long anyway. He also wasn’t happy when I kept writing referrals about students drawing swastikas in their notebooks and on their desks. At that time, writing a discipline referral was considered a strike against the teacher, not the student. It’s true that this assistant principal was overwhelmed and had to pick his battles. But I still wonder if he regrets not choosing the right battles.
The students still had nothing on the teachers as far as bigotry goes. I’ll never forget hearing one of the other teachers declaring, “The Holocaust could happen again, they say,” when referring to our school’s Latino students. It was bad enough to be a Latino child, but absolutely awful to be in the bilingual program at our school. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed. To be fair, many efforts have since been made to make Latino students feel comfortable at the school. But I’m not so certain about the Jewish students, if there are any.
When I told one of my colleagues about how my blood still boils after 20 years since teaching in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, he said I need to look at context—things have changed in the past 20 years, and society has progressed. Is that true? Apparently not, based on recent events in your school district.
After it was widely reported that many Newport Harbor High School students posed for a photo in which they extended a Nazi salute in front of cups arranged in the shape of a swastika, new reports of students distributing Nazi flyers have emerged. Of course, the principal says he “condemns” all acts of anti-Semitism and promises to be “vigilant” about promoting tolerance. But the school officials should have been vigilant a long time ago, particularly with their own staff members. If your school district truly cares, it’s time to admit that the Newport-Mesa USD has been part of the problem, will learn from past mistakes and will come up with concrete solutions that foster a truly inclusive environment.
Daryl Deino is a freelance journalist, technology writer and actor who has appeared on shows such as “Parks and Recreation” and “Two Broke Girls.” He is a contributor to the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on Twitter @ddeino.