Feds say Kyrene School District failed to respond to anti-Semitic harassment of student

The OCR says the student was harassed by nine students who had called her “dirty Jew” and “filthy Jew,” among other anti-Semitic statements.
Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 9:16 AM MST|Updated: Aug. 23, 2022 at 12:11 PM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- A federal investigation found a Phoenix middle schooler’s civil rights were violated after she was forced to endure repeated anti-Semitic harassment in class. The U.S. Department of Education says that Tempe-based Kyrene School District failed to appropriately protect an Altadena Middle School student in Ahwatukee from months of anti-Semitic harassment, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) says the harassment went on for about five months and happened both at school and on social media by several classmates.

The OCR says nine students harassed her and called her anti-Semitic names. She also claimed that the students were making jokes about the Holocaust. Other allegations in the letter detailed sexually charged statements with reference to the girl’s Jewish heritage. “No student should ever be harassed by this,” said Jolie Brislin, the Arizona regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. She said there was a 155% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Arizona last year compared to 2020, the highest it’s been in seven years. “If you are perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes, if you are perpetuating racist rhetoric, our children are listening‚” Brislin said. “They’re taking this rhetoric and taking it into the schools.”

Federal officials found that harassment caused to fall behind in her classes and left her emotionally traumatized. The report said the district and principal of Altadena Middle School, James Martin, didn’t take significant action until it was too late. Martin is now the principal of Centennial Middle School. The district said this report has nothing to do with him switching campuses.

The Kyrene School School District released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it did take actions in the 2018 and 2019 school years to address the harassment, and that students involved were held accountable. In addition, earlier this year, the school board approved a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion policy in hopes that “every student in Kyrene will have a sense of belonging, without bias or discrimination.” Superintendent Laura Toenjes expressed a personal connection to the findings.

Part of a voluntary resolution includes reimbursement for tutoring, 10 hours of career counseling or college guidance, and reimbursement for any services incurred during the reported harassment and the 12 months following the initial reporting date. Kyrene School District has also agreed to prominently display an anti-harassment statement on its website and most of its print publications. The school district will also review its policies and procedures to make the reporting process and anti-harassment policies especially clear and will now include annual training for all staff.

“This work would happen regardless of the resolution in front of us today, but we are grateful for the opportunity to reflect, and we appreciate the guidance that will be offered by the Office for Civil Rights,” said Superintendent Toenjes. District officials say they would look at policies district-wide to make sure they are being seen with an equitable “lens.”