A Toronto teacher with 12 years experience said the way she views “her career” and “education in the Toronto District School Board” has changed after she was subjected to the “Nazi salute” by two Grade 6 students on Thursday.
It’s the third time this month the hateful gesture has been made inside a Toronto District school.
The 35-year-old, who asked that Global News identify her only by her first name, Sarah, said she was substituting at Pleasant Avenue Public School, in a classroom with children she had taught before, when two 12-year-old boys performed the salute and left their hands up for a long time. She said she had no idea they knew she was Jewish.
“I had to just immediately walk out of the classroom. I could no longer be in that environment,” the teacher told Global News. “At that moment in the classroom, I mentioned ‘your hands are up in an interesting position and a very long time.’ I was not sure, ‘do I scold these children right now? I’m thinking at that moment, I’m feeling so hurt inside, I can’t even act or know what to do in that situation.”
The teacher said Pleasant Principal Brian Fong took swift action and summoned the students to his office. He also questioned every student in the class about what happened.
A news release issued by Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada said “this morning, Fong was immersed in meetings deciding disciplinary action, and according to sources, consulting with Toronto District School Board (TDSB) officials.”
Michael Mostyn, chief executive officer of B’nai Brith, told Global News he’s satisfied the school is dealing with this seriously and said the organization learned about the disturbing incident of anti-Semitism after Sarah called its anti-hate hotline.
“The teacher reached out to us. She was traumatized. These are young kids in your face, doing Hail Hitler salutes knowing you’re a Jew,” said Mostyn, concerned about the disturbing trend he called “systemic.”
In a letter sent to the school community Friday, Fong said it’s important that students understand the impact of hate symbols and “will be working to incorporate this as a learning opportunity to underscore our commitment to create a safe and respectful environment at our school.”
Fong said in terms of immediate action, they are working to arrange a program with Michelle Glied-Goldstein who is an educator from “Carrying Holocaust Testimony” for all Grade 6 students.
Last week, a similar incident occurred at Valley Park Middle School, which is also part of the TDSB. In that case, three Grade 8 students surrounded a Jewish teacher, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and performed the Hitler salute. Anti-Semitic graffiti was also found at the school.
On Feb. 1, two students at Charles H. Best Middle School performed a Hitler salute in front of classmates and depicted a swastika.
Sarah said she knew about the two other incidents and never believed it would happen to her.
“I think that’s what scared me the most. This is not on TV. This is not in my imagination. This is happening in front of my face, in a classroom, in real life. This is happening to me. It was very scary for me.”
In late January, the Ontario government announced it would be investing almost $300,000 to combat rising anti-Semitism in schools by partnering with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.
In March of last year, the TDSB published a Human Rights Report for 2018-2020, which found that “Incidents of Antisemitism have risen at an alarming rate.” Anti-Semitism was the second-highest source of hate activity within the TDSB in 2018-2019 and third-highest in 2019-2020, despite Jewish students constituting a tiny minority of the overall population.
Sarah isn’t sure when she will return to teaching. “I have no idea right now. I’m feeling hesitant to go back to any classroom right now. I need a bit more time to reflect and I’ll see how I’m feeling.”