Kyrene district failed to protect Jewish student from antisemitic harassment, officials say

Aug 23, 2022, 12:53 PM | Updated: 1:00 pm
(Facebook Photo/Kyrene School District)...
(Facebook Photo/Kyrene School District)
(Facebook Photo/Kyrene School District)

PHOENIX – An East Valley school district failed to protect a Jewish student from months of antisemitic harassment, violating her civil rights, federal officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Kyrene School District reached a resolution over a complaint about the harassment during the 2018-19 school year. The name of the school involved was not released.

“OCR found that the district failed to implement measures to address the hostile environment that the student experienced as it failed to develop and implement a safety plan for the student,” Michael D. Todd, supervisory attorney for the OCR, wrote in a nine-page letter to Kyrene Superintendent Laura Toenjes summarizing the investigation.

“As a result of the district’s failure to do so, the student and the complainant believed that there was no alternative to ensure the student’s safety other than home-schooling.”

Per the resolution, Kyrene agreed to take steps to properly address incidents of discrimination based on race, color or national origin in compliance with the Civil Rights Act. The district said it is working on a plan to address the resolution and will review all of its policies to ensure they meet standards of inclusion.

“As a person of Jewish faith, I was deeply affected by this investigation,” Toenjes said in a press release. “I will work very closely with our board to ensure every student of every faith, every race and every background feels safe, valued and respected inside our schools.”

The Kyrene School District, which serves students through eighth grade, is based in Tempe and extends into parts of Chandler, Guadalupe, Phoenix and the Gila River Indian Community.

In May of this year, the district implemented its first Diversity, Equity And Inclusion policy.

“As we see a distressing rise in reports of antisemitism on campuses across the country, I commend Kyrene School District … for committing today to take essential steps to ensure that no other students will have to suffer antisemitic harassment or other harassment based on their shared ancestry,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary of the OCR, said in a press release.

According to the OCR’s letter, the student was subjected to antisemitic harassment for about five months. The school’s principal didn’t adequately inform teachers and other staff about the harassment, leaving them unprepared monitor the situation, according to the letter.

“Incidents included calling the student names, such as “dirty Jew,” “stinky Jew,” and “filthy Jew”; making jokes about the Holocaust, speaking or pretending to speak in German, and marching/saluting like Nazi soldiers, to and in the presence of the student,” the letter says.

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Kyrene district failed to protect Jewish student from antisemitic harassment, officials say