School officials investigating racist incidents at Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2023 7:21 PM

BELCHERTOWN — School officials at Jabish Brook Middle School have opened an investigation into alleged antisemitic incidents at the school, including the use of the Nazi salute, by a large number of students. 

The investigation was announced by Brian Cameron, superintendent of Belchertown Public Schools, in an email sent to parents April 3, following complaints made to the district by multiple parents. 

“The Belchertown School District condemns the use of racist and derogatory language and symbolism which is a blatant violation of school policy, and more importantly our community’s core values,” Cameron wrote in the email. “No one should ever have to come to work or school and experience discrimination and bigotry in any form.” 

During a Select Board meeting April 3, the same day Cameron sent the email to parents, a letter from one parent who filed a complaint with the school was read during the meeting by board member Jennifer Turner.

The parent, who was not named at the meeting, detailed how her child told her that up to 50 students at the school had been performing the Nazi salute and intimidating Jewish students with references to gas chambers and the Holocaust.

“These are not isolated events. They have been occurring for months,” the letter reads. “These individuals are performing hate acts and seek the spotlight while doing it.”

According to the parent’s letter, the school’s investigation has so far uncovered video footage, Instagram posts, and group Google Docs made by the offending students that verify the claims.

Heidi Gutekenst, chairwoman of the Belchertown School Committee, said the school has currently identified fewer than 10 students who have participated in the incidents, but that the investigation was ongoing due to the large number of students believed to have taken part.

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“Nobody’s been expelled, but there have been consequences,” she said. “We’re including this in our racial equity educational program. It’s a broad spectrum of a lot of things, but this is one of them.”

In an email sent to one of the parents and obtained by the Gazette, the school’s principal, Thomas Ruscio, said that remedial actions were being taken by him and the school’s assistant principal, Sarah Strout.

“Mrs. Strout has been working on the student incident and both corrective and restorative disciplinary action,” Ruscio wrote in the email. “We are also looking at implementing an educational response to our eighth grade students.”

In a separate email obtained by the Gazette, school guidance counselor Jennifer Parker said she had met with some of the students who had shared offensive material to have discussions about why such content is harmful.

“These discussions about the impact of their words and deeds, the need to think through their role in perpetuating hateful content, and the need to become allies in the fight against all forms of hate has been reinforced,” Parker said. “I will continue with these conversations, and will urge our admin to replace our current advisory curriculum to include more explicit instruction in fighting bias and hate, racism, anti-semitism and homophobia.”

Antisemitism on rise

The incidents in Belchertown come amid reports of increasing antisemitism across Massachusetts. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, Massachusetts ranked fifth among all states in the number of antisemitic incidents last year, with the total increasing from previous years.

The spike in antisemitism has led to efforts to address the issue in education, such as a recent $25 million ad campaign by Foundation to Combat Antisemitism (FCAS), owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The foundation also has partnered with other organizations such as the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts to support the campaign.

“When we, as Jews, experience antisemitism, we must respond not just with what we stand for, but what we stand against,” said Nora Gorenstein, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, in a statement put out in late March announcing her organization’s partnership with FCAS. “We must educate others and stand proud of our culture and faith.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.]]>