Stanley Kusper Jr. (left), chairperson of the LSC for the Ogden International School of Chicago, and Principal Joshua VanderJagt both spoke Thursday night during an LSC meeting about anti-Semitic bullying at the school. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 10, 2014 6:15AM
Just how should Chicago clean up the hateful bullying mess at Ogden International School?
Three students were suspended last month from the Chicago public school after subjecting a fellow eighth-grader to sustained anti-Semitic bullying. The three students graduated but did not participate in Saturday’s ceremony.
Revelations about the intensity of the bullying and the hot mess that followed (and continues) offer important lessons for any school community that hopes to mitigate bullying and recover from its devastating impact.
Two highlights of the bullying, in case anyone might pass this off as run-of-the-mill teasing: While studying the Holocaust at school, these kids went home and created an online game called “Jew Incinerator.” It read: “We are a friendly group of racists with one goal — put all Jews into army camps until disposed of.” They also told the victim, among other threats over six months, to wear striped pajamas and get into the oven and gas shower, the boy’s mother says. Three students were the ringleaders but others joined in.
The particulars matter here — this was anti-Semitic bullying — but the general themes of hate and persecution are universal and, unfortunately, are well known by many minority groups and kids. News surfaced Friday that another Chicago school, Peirce, was dealing with the suicide of one its students, a girl who claimed she had been bullied.
How a school responds to hateful bullying, and more importantly, how it tries to prevent it in the first place is essential to building a culture where all students can flourish.
For starters, there’s no perfect way to handle something so volatile, but there’s little doubt Ogden’s principal blew it, at least initially, which he has acknowledged.
A first-time principal, he was slow to meet with the bullied student at the diverse North Side school, which has two campuses. He also initially sent out vague information to parents and didn’t call this what it was: anti-Semitic bullying. CPS says he sent a letter to parents defining the problem, but several parents tell us they never got that letter. These omissions left the victim and his family feeling unprotected, the school community divided and vulnerable to believing half-truths and social media rumor. It also left administrators vulnerable to criticism that they hadn’t sufficiently punished the bullies.
Experts tell us is imperative to label the problem quickly, once an investigation is complete, so that rage and the rumor mill don’t take over, which is what happened here. If a school wants to create a culture where bullying isn’t tolerated, the entire school community has to be included, and a clear plan to respond to the bullying must be articulated.
To be fair, CPS administrators have since begun to get their act together in a serious way, hosting two parent meetings, and there also was a Local School Council meeting, where complaints of other kinds of bullying were aired. The Anti-Defamation League did a seminar for eighth-graders on Wednesday, just before they graduated.
The school system also is considering strengthening the bullying provision in its discipline code for all schools and looking at ways to deal with cyberbullying. It plans teacher and principal training this summer. Chip Johnson, an administrator who oversees Ogden, also said the school will review Ogden’s curriculum, in particular units such as the one on the Holocaust.
“As we grow farther away from events that affect us personally, they affect us less,” Johnson said. “In that instance it becomes another history lesson or event — just a picture of a black boy hanging from a tree or a Jew going into an oven.”
Helping students connect with those subjects — inviting Holocaust survivors to schools through the Illinois Holocaust Museum, for example — is just one of many ways a school can build a culture where bullying isn’t a problem.
That work, and the work of healing a community like Ogden, has only begun. It won’t be easy, particularly with all the other pressing issues CPS schools face. CPS is known to promise big and deliver small.
But we can think of few efforts that matter more. When kids don’t feel safe, when a school culture isn’t supportive and inclusive, that jeopardizes everything layered on top.