Local Jewish leaders are calling on the Cobb County School District to do more in response to antisemitic hate speech in its schools.

On Sept. 16 – during the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur – Rabbi Spike Anderson of the Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs used part of his sermon to comment on recent instances of hate speech and antisemitism at Pope High School. According to a Facebook post from the Pope High School PTSA, some students drew swastikas and other antisemitic messages on the walls in the school. 

“Their choice of what to graffiti was not a swear word, but rather the words ‘Heil Hitler,’” Anderson said. “I’m not suggesting that these kids are Neo Nazi masterminds. I have no idea what ideologies they’ve been exposed to. But for sure, there’s something in the zeitgeist that made them write these words in particular.”

Anderson went on to call out the school district’s decision to not allow critical race theory in its schools. The district voted to ban critical race theory – which is a concept that seeks to show how racism and inequity in history shape society, policy, and other aspects of life – in June of 2021. 

“Pope High School is not allowed to use this incident to teach any history, or values, or ethical lessons,” Anderson said. “This also means that schools like Pope are strongly discouraged from inviting organizations like the Anti-Defamation League to teach kids and the teachers how to address these incidents, or to create an atmosphere where kids would be … standing up for one another against hate of any type.” 

Sen. Jon Ossoff also spoke at the Sandy Springs temple on Sept. 16. 

“My generation was raised with the words ‘never forget’ pressed into our minds,” Ossoff said. “And so when at Pope High School … a swastika and a tribute to Adolf Hitler are scrawled on school walls … it must inflame in us the same passion for the survival of our people that burned in the hearts of the generation that emerged from the Shoah and built a future for the Jewish people here in America, around the world, and in the land of Israel.”

Days after the incident at Pope, someone drew antisemitic speech and symbols on the walls at Lassiter High School, also in the Cobb County School District. 

“I am both angered and saddened by the appearance of symbols and words of hatred in our school and community,” said Lassiter Principal Chris Richie in a letter posted to Facebook. “I do think it is important to first let parents know what occurred, to name it, and to let our students know that we condemn it.” 

In response to both of these events, a group called Atlanta Initiative Against Antisemitism (AIAAS) has started a petition calling on the school board to act. AIAAS has started the petition in conjunction with the Anti Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Student Union, according to a press release.

“We are asking the Cobb County School Board and its associated schools to recognize and condemn all forms of antisemitism that occur on campus and to allow school principals the authority to condemn these acts and reinstate programming to proactively educate the student body and community about antisemitism and to prevent further occurrences,” reads the petition, which as of Sept. 22 had over 3,900 signatures. 

According to the AIAAS, the Cobb County School District has not done enough to condemn these acts of antisemitism and hate speech. 

“This is a teachable moment, and we need to seize it,” said Lauren Menis, AIAAS co-founder, in the press release. “By not naming it and not allowing anti-hate educational programming to address this in their schools, the schools have denied a valuable opportunity to help students learn from these events.”

Menis said that multiple local synagogues and organizations have supported the AIAAS’s efforts, including Temple Beth Tikvah and Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell, and Temple Kol Emeth, Chabad of Cobb, and Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta has shared the petition on its Facebook page, and Menis said the Georgia State Commission on the Holocaust has also supported the petition.  

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the school district said the school board has “zero tolerance” for these types of actions, and that “all applicable District policies and laws will be applied.”

“Speaking for the Board Chair and Board, the District continues to condemn the recent disturbing social media trend involving hate speech, anti-Semitic references, and the abuse of school property,” said the district spokesperson. “Our principals have and are engaging with students, teachers, parents, and community members about how to prevent the harmful and illegal behavior from happening … We encourage families to talk to their students about the impacts of inappropriate and dangerous trends circulating on social media. Parents, students, or staff members can report safety concerns to the District’s Tipline via call, text or email.”

The AIAAS plans to share the petition at the Cobb County School Board meeting on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. at 514 Glover Street in Marietta. 

“To us, this is much more than a Cobb County issue,” Menis said in an email. “It’s bigger with farther reaching consequences.”

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.