‘Rampant’ antisemitism in Cherry Creek Schools has parents and students worried

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Jenny Brundin/CPR New
Cherry Creek School buses.

Kids throwing pennies on the floor and telling Jewish students to pick them up. Students yelling to Jewish students that “Kanye was right and that Hitler did not do a good enough job.” Jewish students finding Nazi symbols scribbled on their schoolwork. Students performing Nazi salutes in front of Jewish students.

Those are just some of the incidents Jewish students say they’ve endured at Cherry Creek Schools where they’re increasingly the targets of antisemitic behavior, according to parents and students. They crowded into the auditorium at Cherokee Trail High School on Monday night to share their experiences with school board members.

More than 250 families signed a letter sent to the superintendent asking for change. It said one family said the antisemitism and harassment is so constant that one mother has told her children not to tell anyone they are Jewish.

The board meeting came a week after an incident at Campus Middle School. On April 28, after a presentation on the Holocaust, some students drew swastikas on their arms and legs. When district mom Rikki Mor saw the photos, she posted on Facebook about it. Within days, she’d heard from 300 families sharing their concerns with many describing their own encounters with antisemitism in Cherry Creek schools — the fourth largest district in the state in Arapahoe County.

“This is what is happening in the hallways of your schools,” Mor told the board.

She calls it systemic, rampant antisemitism.

“Our kids do not feel safe,” she said. “Our kids are scared to say they are Jewish for fear of retaliation. Our kids are wearing their Jewish star necklaces under their shirts and hiding who they are,” she said. “This has to change.”

Parent Jennifer Stern told the board two boys performed a Nazi salute in front of her daughter in a Campus school hallway last fall. She said the boys only received a warning because the school said the security camera footage was blurry and said the school was concerned about legal ramification from the boys’ parents.

“My daughter does not feel safe,” she said.

Campus Middle School principal Lissa Staal wrote a letter to families informing them of the April 28 incident when kids drew swastikas following the school’s Holocaust presentation.

“This creates an unacceptable environment of intolerance and exclusion in our school community. When these events are reported to the administration, we address them immediately and those involved face disciplinary consequences.”

After the incident, the school hosted multiple sessions with all students hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. In addition, the school provided lessons around “the negative impact and trauma that hate speech, antisemitism, anti-ableism and the use of racial slurs have on the overall culture of our school environment,” Staal wrote to families.

District leaders and the school’s principal have met separately with ADL staff. 

'I’m sorry.'

 At Monday’s board meeting Cherry Creek Superintendent Christopher Smith said multiple students are facing disciplinary action for the April 28 incident.

“We do not tolerate hate of any kind in this district against any group.”

Smith said he knows racist and antisemitic events aren’t isolated to Campus Middle School. He said that students are bombarded by hate and violence on social media and scared to come to school. Smith asked for parent’s support in educating their children. But he said schools must also do better.

“I want to say, as the leader of this district, ‘I’m sorry. I’m absolutely sorry that these are the things that happen to you in our district.’”

 In 2020, the Colorado lawmakers passed legislation requiring that Holocaust and genocide studies be part of the state social studies academic standards. The state board of education approved the standards in November 2022. School districts have until the beginning of the 2024 school year to adopt curriculum. But with antisemitic events on the rise, students and parents want action now.

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League reported 495 antisemitic incidents at K-12 schools across the nation, an increase of 49 percent.  But that’s just what’s reported, said Scott Levin, director of the ADL for the mountain states region.

“What I’m really feeling here tonight is how little we know; how little we measure,” he told the board. “Just from the things you’ve heard in the audience, these aren’t all things that come to us, but they are things that come to you, things that come to teachers, to principals.”

He said to change the culture and climate, education can’t only happen after antisemitic incidents; there must be proactive education.

Students speak out

Another student spoke of Cherry Creek High students performing Hitler salutes. At West Middle School, kids drew swastikas on notebooks and lockers, he said. At Campus Middle School, kids drew swastikas on their hands. He’s been told to leave the school because he’s Jewish.

“What else needs to happen for serious change to take place fast?” he asked the board.

A different student told the board about an incident when a boy approached her group in class. The boy recounted how he and his brother had told two Jewish boys to go back to the gas chambers. She was furious and asked him why he would share such a thing. The boy asked why she would care. She said she was Jewish. She said his face turned to disgust and he opened his mouth and said, “Ew, then you should go back to the gas chambers too.”

“I didn’t fight back, I just stood up and left. This left me scared to go back to school every single day from that point forward,” the student said. She said her relatives were in the Holocaust.

She reported the incident but said nothing happened.  Meanwhile, concerned parents want antisemitism addressed at the next board meeting. They’d like a task force on the topic next school year and a training program for teachers on modern day antisemitism and how to address incidents in the classroom. Finally, they’d like a curriculum to address modern antisemitism.  

“Our grandparents and great-grandparents did not perish in the gas chambers, or by the grace of God survive them so that their descendants would cower in the corners and hide being Jewish,” Mor told the board.

In a statement to CPR News,  the district said it’s continuing conversations with parents about the incident. It also said it is using the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” curriculum across the district and will review opportunities to expand upon the curriculum to “help promote understanding and tolerance in our community.”