Monday, Feb 26th

Community Reacts to Antisemitic Incident at the Leffell School

BasketballhoopSince the October 7th attacks on Israel, there has not only been a growing (and heartbreaking) sense of cultural division in our communities, but also a shocking and drastic rise in antisemitism. On Thursday January 4th, an antisemitic incident hit close to home when a girl’s varsity basketball game between the Leffell School (a private Jewish day school) and Roosevelt High School Early College Studies, (a public high school in Yonkers) abruptly ended after a few Roosevelt players started to accost Leffell players with antisemitic slurs. According to one of the Leffell players, who wrote about the experience for their school newspaper, “We did not want to continue this game after the third quarter, as it no longer felt respectful as the other team did not show sportsmanlike conduct. Instead of responding to hatred with more of the same, we chose to separate ourselves from the situation and leave with dignity and pride in who we are and what we believe in.”

In encouraging news, condemnation of the incident has been swift and plentiful with many in the Westchester community speaking out against the behavior. It is reported that Roosevelt High School officials, including their athletic director, immediately reached out to the Leffell School administration to apologize and to let them know they were investigating the incident and were taking disciplinary actions. What’s more, the Yonkers Public Schools shared that, "After a thorough review of videos taken at the game and interviews with those who witnessed the incident, the Yonkers Public Schools dismissed the coach and one player from the Roosevelt basketball team.”

Soon after, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and the Yonkers Public Schools Interim Superintendent Luis Rodriguez issued a joint statement which read, "The Yonkers Public Schools along with the City of Yonkers sincerely apologize to the students and community of The Leffell School for the painful and offensive comments made to their women’s basketball team during a recent game with Roosevelt High School- Early College Studies, collectively, we do not and will not tolerate hate speech of any kind from our students and community. The antisemitic rhetoric reportedly made against the student athletes of The Leffell School are abhorrent, inappropriate and not in line with the values we set forth for our young people."

Westchester County Executive George Latimer said, "Westchester does not tolerate hate of any type: racism, antisemitism, prejudice expressed toward Women, LGBTQ individuals, Muslims, Asian Americans, Hispanics, the disabled. We are stronger because of our diversity and every group must respect the integrity of every other group."

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin commented, "We cannot allow anti-semitism to be normalized. If we do we allow our society to go to a very dark place. We cannot allow this type of openly expressed antisemitism at a school or anywhere. It cannot be addressed with a mere slap of the wrist. As New Yorkers, and Americans, we have a responsibility to look out for one another, and uphold tolerance and respect. I hold our school districts, and all people, to this higher standard.” 

On January 8th, Congressman Jamaal Bowman released a statement which began by declaring, “There is no place for antisemitism on the court, in our schools, or any other place in our society. The behavior and harmful rhetoric displayed during Thursday’s game is unacceptable, and it’s our job as parents and educators to teach against hate in all forms so our children can learn and do better. Sports are spaces where we come together in friendly competition to build character and community with one another.”

Perhaps even more encouraging than the words of condemnation, is the call to use the unfortunate incident as an opportunity to learn and grow.

In a letter to the New York State Board of Regents, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner called on the Board to not only further investigate the incident but to also explore, “ What action steps should all school districts in New York State take to reduce the possibility of these kind of hateful incidents taking place in the future?” And encouraged the Board of Regents to, “Consult with the Anti-Defamation League, the state Human Rights Commissions and other groups, and religious leaders in strengthening guidelines and requirements.”

It seems the Yonkers School District is already taking action on their own accord, "Along with Mayor Spano’s convening of religious, educational and civic leaders, Yonkers Public Schools also will administer further counseling and guided training sessions amongst the school community to prevent this from happening again."

In addition to his initial condemnation, on January 8th George Latimer issued another statement in which he explained that his office “has invited Section 1 leaders, coaches and players to participate in an Education Round Table. This initiative, organized in collaboration with the Westchester County Human Rights Commission and the Westchester County Youth Bureau, aims to facilitate open dialogue, promote understanding and provide education on how to engage with fellow players with respect and dignity.” The statement goes on, “In addition, the County is organizing a training session for Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation & Conservation staff working at the Westchester County Center during the Section 1 Tournament. This training is designed to ensure that all staff, patrons and players are treated with the utmost respect and dignity, fostering a positive and inclusive atmosphere.”

While some may be appeased by the disciplinary actions taken, many in our community wonder how we can prevent incidents like this from happening again, how can we ensure that our young students learn from their missteps, and what we can do to avoid creating more anger and resentment but to truly nurture a sense of understanding, empathy, and healthy discourse? Though the Yonkers Public School District and George Latimer are taking actionable steps in a positive direction, some have asked, “What can we do as parents, friends, and educators to ensure we are fostering a safe and welcoming community for all?”

According to educational experts, we can start by:

-Providing students with opportunities in the classroom to discuss controversial topics, including the current situation in Israel and Gaza, so that they learn the skills necessary to do this effectively.

-Encouraging students to engage in programs that are meant to create healthy relationships among students, such as the opportunities for community building inherent in athletic and extracurricular activities.

-Approaching discipline in these situations in a graduated fashion and considering aspects such as the severity of the situation and whether it is a first incident for a student. Try to accompany consequences with counseling and, when appropriate, restorative conversations with the affected student(s).

-Parents can help by discussing multiple perspectives, sharing news sources from various viewpoints, and helping their children understand how to disagree without being disagreeable, as well as monitoring social media use and sharing tips about healthy curation and screen time, acknowledging that this is a challenge for all of us.

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