Following its big debut meeting this year, the new Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism has announced the focus of its next forum: anti-Semitism in schools.

Formed by a group of Dunwoody mothers outraged by anti-Semitic threats nationwide, AIAAS drew about 200 attendees to its first forum, held March 30 in Sandy Springs. A major topic revealed by the forum’s roundtable discussions was a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in schools in north Fulton County.

Lauren Menis, founder of Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism. (Special)

Lauren Menis, one of AIAAS’s founders, said that since the forum the group has heard from parents, teachers and rabbis about more school incidents.

“There’s been swastikas on walls,” Menis said. “One kid surrounded by a group of kids ‘Heil Hitler’-ing him … Money thrown at the feet of kids [by students] saying, ‘Here, you’re Jewish.’”

The next forum, to be held sometime in October, will seek better methods for preventing and responding to such incidents, Menis said.

“The issue is that most of the incidents aren’t getting reported and schools don’t have a consistent protocol for dealing with it,” said Menis. The group hopes to “hopefully come up with countywide or statewide protocols for how to deal with this.”

As a grassroots group formed as an instinctive response to national news, AIAAS representatives admit they have sought a focus and a mission distinct from the established advocacy groups the organization has allied with, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

The debut forum was both an agenda-setter and an end in itself, providing a wide range of government, business and religious leaders a chance to share stories and strategies.

That forum was held at Temple Emanu-El, where Rabbi Spike Anderson was among those describing reports of anti-Semitic bullying in local schools.

“Sometimes they’re quite shocking in terms of what kids say to each other,” Anderson said at the forum, adding that he was not impressed by the responses of most schools.

Two specific, recent incidents at Sandy Springs’ North Springs Charter High School were later confirmed by Fulton County school officials: swastika graffiti and mock Valentines cards with anti-Semitic messages.

Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Spike Anderson speaks at his group’s table at the AIAAS forum. (John Ruch)

The ADL has an educational program addressing such incidents. In April, the ADL said that reports of anti-Semitic incidents in non-Jewish grade schools nationwide had more than doubled, from 114 in 2015 to 235 in 2016. In the first quarter of 2017, the ADL had 95 reports of such incidents.

But the ADL usually comes in only when officials request it, and the stories AIAAS is hearing suggested that many incidents go unreported, Menis said.

The forum’s October timing coincides with “National Bullying Prevention Month,” as declared by the PACER Center, a Minnesota-based advocacy organization for children with disabilities. While bullying prevention and response programs have become a trend in schools, Menis said, there appears to be some issue with how that overlaps with the related but distinct realm of hate incidents.

“We’re looking at anti-Semitism and other forms of hate,” Menis said. “Hate speech or acts are on a different plane than that.”

None of the incidents AIAAS is hearing about come from Jewish schools, Menis said. While that may not be a surprise, the possibility of anti-Semitism from within Jewish communities was a discussion point at the first forum. A nationwide campaign of bomb threats against Jewish organizations was one reason for AIAAS’s founding, and the suspect charged in the case is a Jewish resident of Israel.

Menis said after that arrest that many other incidents show the need for AIAAS. Since the forum, she said, she has received “hate emails” that led her to contact the police. That sort of response “just shows what we’re doing, there’s a reason for it,” she said.

The October forum likely will be invitation-only, for reasons of productivity and security, Menis said. She hopes to attract state, county and local school officials, as well as parents and students affected by anti-Semitic school incidents.

For more information about AIAAS, see StopAntiSemitismATL.org.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.