The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said it will be providing more education about the Holocaust to its students in middle and high school, after several antisemitic incidents have been reported in recent weeks.
The news comes after antisemitic incidents were reported at Valley Park Middle School last week.
In a letter sent to parents and students dated Feb. 17, George Bartzis Principal of Valley Park, said antisemitic graffiti was found at the school, “along with three students who performed the ‘Hitler salute’ in front of classmates.”
Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a spokesperson for the TDSB, said the students who performed the salute had targeted a French teacher.
“This particular incident was very hateful, very hurtful, and very upsetting to the teacher who happens to be Jewish,” Schwartz-Maltz told a press conference on Tuesday.
She said the teacher is the child of Holocaust survivors.
Schwartz-Maltz, who is also chair of the board’s Jewish heritage committee, said there will be consequences for the students involved.
She said the board has “always been open to different Holocaust programming” in all of it’s middle and high schools on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“But I think it’s important that I say today — and this has come from the top — that we are committed to proactively bringing more Holocaust education into our schools, our middle schools up.”
She said when the board investigates these antisemitic incidents, “most of the time,” the students “have no idea” why their actions are so hurtful.
Schwartz-Maltz said the board will now be working on a “more proactive” basis, and will be calling in community partners who can share stories about the Holocaust.
“We’ve been working with them on a reactive basis, like every time there’s an incident, which there’s a lot,” Schwartz-Maltz said. “But going forward we’re going to be working with them on a more proactive (basis).”
According to Schwartz-Maltz, the board will also be working with organizations such as The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center to boost education on the issue.
Bartzis called the incident “very upsetting and unacceptable.”
“We take great pride in our school as a welcoming, safe, and inclusive place and this has always been our message to students,” he said in the letter. “It is also not reflective of who we are and what we stand for as a school and as a community.”
Bartzis said as soon as the incidents were brought to the attention of administrators, they “took immediate steps to address the issue and we continue to investigate.”
“On behalf of Valley Park Middle School, we acknowledge and regret the harm this incident caused to members of our school community and to our shared school climate,” Bartzis said.
“We are committed to the work of intentionally identifying, interrupting, and addressing racism and discrimination in our school, with a focus on antisemitism.”
He said the school will be working with students to “address this matter and incorporate this as a learning opportunity that supports equity and inclusion to underscore our commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment for all.”
According to the letter, the school is consulting with Toronto District School Board Equity Advisors and “other central staff” to “establish new strategies and tools for addressing antisemitism.”
“This also speaks to the need for us as a school to continue to educate our students in Human Rights education so that we can learn from our past in order to better our future as an inclusive society,” the letter reads.
Bartzis said during the first week of March, representatives from Carry Holocaust Testimony will give a presentation at the school.
“During this presentation, students will continue to learn the history and lessons of the Holocaust through meaningful, first-hand testimonials from Survivors and their descendants,” the letter said.
Bartzis said the school takes these incidents “very seriously” and “address the situation immediately.”
He said some students may be upset as a result of these incidents. He said social work will be at the school to offer support.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the incident is “as sad as it is hurtful” and “obviously unacceptable.”
“It is extremely troubling to see antisemitic acts, especially among young people, happening in our community,” he wrote.
Tory said he has spoken with TDSB Chair Alexander Brown to “stress the urgency of these incidents and to discuss what we can do together to do a better job ensuring all students understand the searing impact of antisemitism including Nazi symbols and actions.”
Tory said “clearly more education is needed.”
The mayor said antisemitism, hate and discrimination have have “no place in our Toronto.”
“I trust the TDSB will urgently follow up and let us all know what can be done to effectively address these recent incidents.”
In a statement released Tuesday, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) called for “emergency action” from the TDSB.
“FSWC has been in communication with senior TDSB officials and is urging immediate intervention by the Board to address the escalation in antisemitic incidents and level of seriousness of these incidents at Toronto schools.”
Earlier this month, antisemitic incidents were reported at both Ledbury Park Elementary and Middle School in Toronto and at Charles H. Best Middle School in North York.
Michael Levitt, FSWC president and CEO, said this “wave of antisemitism at TDSB schools that we are seeing is unprecedented in terms of both number of incidents and their escalating gravity.”
“This most recent incident involving a Jewish teacher is particularly horrifying,” Levitt said in a statement. “Antisemitism has reached epidemic proportions at TDSB, and it is time for the Board to recognize this as the crisis that it is.”
He said it is “unfathomable and shocking” that in 2022, a Jewish teacher is faced with Nazi salutes and a ‘Heil Hitler’ chant in her classroom.
“Clearly, something is broken in Toronto’s public school system and requires immediate attention,” Levitt said.
-With files from The Canadian Press