Jewish student forced to switch schools due to a rise in antisemitism
June 28, 2023
As 14-year-old Eden Shelby sat quietly on the school bus, a classmate sitting across from her suddenly stood up, arm extended, and made the unmistakable gesture of the Hitler salute.
This was just one incident in a series of events at Aki Kurosi middle school in South Seattle in which Shelby, an eighth grader, encountered antisemitism. Over the course of three months, Shelby experienced antisemitic remarks, drawings, and by-standing. This ultimately led to her transferring to a Jewish school, where she would be safe from antisemitism.
“It made me feel uncomfortable and I felt mentally unsafe and not in a place where I could have people I would trust,” Shelby said.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that in 2022 there were 494 antisemitic incidents that took place in non-Jewish, mostly public, schools. This is a 49 percent increase from 2021, which saw 331 incidents. Of the 494 K-12 school incidents, 257 were incidents of harassment, 232 were incidents of vandalism and five were assaults. The ADL also reports that it is common in public schools for Jewish students to get taunted by others with Holocaust jokes and references. “Our take is that schools are reflective of society at large and if there is a rise in hate or prejudice on a larger scale, that has a direct impact in our schools,” said Miri Cypers, the Pacific Northwest ADL director.
Erin Goodman, Shelby’s mother, said the first concerning issue surfaced in late November 2022. “Eden reported to me that at school there had been an announcement over the loudspeaker that said ‘Today is the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah’ and that the announcement went on to talk about forgiveness,” she said. “Eden said it made her uncomfortable since it was obviously not Rosh Hashana.”
Goodman reported the situation in an email to several school members on December 1, including Principal Caine Lowery, the PTA president and parent Tammy Morales, who is a Seattle City Council member, whose child is a Jewish student at the school.
Vice Principal Emma Hong, who was filling in for Lowery, who was on paternity leave, called Goodman that day to say it was a mistake. A student had used an old script to make the morning announcements, and they later apologized for the misinformation. “One of our students who has recently partnered up with a staff member to read a portion of our Wednesday morning announcements, mistakenly picked this out of a collection without direct supervision because that particular staff member was absent today and she didn’t realize she should not move forward without direct staff support,” said Hong, according to public records released by Seattle Public Schools about the incidents. Both Hong and Lowery did not respond to several emails from The Mane Idea.
Goodman then connected the school to Regina Friedland, the local director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), to see what educational programs were available to make the school more aware of Jewish considerations. “I suggested that this might be an opportunity for a teachable moment beyond a simple retraction,” said Goodman. Friedland reached out via email to help educate the school on Judaism and antisemitism. “Unfortunately [the administrators] never made a move on it,” Friedland said. “The school seemed interested but never called me back as we discussed would be the next step.” According to Hong, Goodman and Friedland never followed up.
Just 12 days after the incident with the announcements, Shelby reported to Goodman that students at her school started making antisemitic comments based on Kanye West’s Oct. 8 tweet that he planned to “go death con 3 on Jewish people.” Students made remarks such as “Hitler was right” and “I agree with Kanye” and even drew swastikas on tables, according to Shelby. In an email reporting this, Goodman says to Hong, “She says she feels uncomfortable as a Jew at Aki and asked if she could be homeschooled next semester.”
“I am so disheartened and saddened to receive this message,” Hong replied in an email on December 13th. “Staff members will be vigilant in watching for any people drawing any type of hateful images and/or language, and in removing any of those items as quickly as possible. If an individual person is identified as drawing any such items, and/or voicing any hateful language, staff know to report to the administration for follow up.” After this, Hong and Goodman set up an in-person meeting to discuss the matter.
But Shelby called it quits after the February 6 school bus event.
Goodman reported that Shelby did not want to go to school the next day.“At this point, I realize there is nothing that the school is prepared to do to address the situation so I need to focus on my daughter and her mental and physical safety,” Goodman said. She requested a meeting with school administrators to discuss further options to safely finish the school year.
Goodman sent an email to Fred Podesta, Assistant Superintendent of Operations at Seattle Public Schools, asking for assistance. “I have reached out to Asst Principal Hong this morning and have not had a reply yet. At this point, it feels like it has risen above the school level and needs to be addressed at a district level,” Goodman said in the email. Podesta then referred the matter to Lowery. After they met with Lowery, Goodman said, “This meeting was extremely unpleasant and unproductive.” This resulted in the decision to transfer Shelby. “At this point, we decided that Eden was no longer safe to attend school at Aki and started making plans to move her to Seattle Hebrew Academy [a local private Jewish school],” Goodman said.
February 15th was Shelby’s first day at Seattle Hebrew Academy. She is planning on attending NYHS next school year. “A Jewish day school is not only important because it is a place for students to go to if they have problems like this,” SHA head of school Rabbi Benjy Owen said, “but also because it gives them the strength to be able to deal with these forces in the world.”
Shelby was nervous but thought transferring was a good idea.“Honestly, I’ve had a really good experience at SHA and don’t regret it at all,” Shelby says. “Everyone has been so welcoming.”