Breaking Bigotry

Some schools won't hear of intolerance; others just don't want to listen

Because of these verbal and physical attacks, Phillip's grades suffered, and he had to attend summer school. On June 29, he was approached by a student who said, "So you are the Jew." The student then shoved Phillip in the chest, began choking him and placed him in a headlock. This was reported to the police department and Richard Ownby, superintendent of schools. Donna Nevelow asked Ownby not to get involved until the police completed their investigation. But the superintendent left his office, went to the school and reportedly told Phillip's attacker: "If you are smart, you will call the Nevelow kid and apologize."

On October 21, 1999, asked to write an editorial suitable for the school newspaper and told he could write about "any topic about which you feel strongly," Phillip wrote about his experiences with "violence, anti-Semitism and hatred" at the school. He received an F. No counselors were called in to address his feelings; no effort was made to corral the violence.

In November 1999, the district sent Phillip's parents some drawings their son had done. On one, there was a note written by Phillip saying: "It's one of those days when you don't want to wake up and everything is you really don't know why, but you want to rip someone's head off." This arrived with a note from the school saying Phillip's conduct was questionable, his actions disruptive and his grades had dropped. Eric responded with a letter to Principal Storm reminding the school of the anti-Semitic conduct and what he said was the nonresponsiveness of the district to the problem.

Eric and Donna Nevelow are leaving Santa Fe.
Deron Neblett
Eric and Donna Nevelow are leaving Santa Fe.

Storm admitted in a TV interview with Channel 13's Cynthia Hunt that he should have followed up on Phillip's complaints, according to the suit.

Instead, the suit says, Superintendent Ownby had referred to Phillip's complaints as something he created himself, "mostly as petty-type things which Phillip may have instigated." Board member John Clayton has referred to the Nevelows' complaints as "trite."

All these acts by the district, the suit claims, were "part and parcel of the defendants' conduct that encouraged students, parents and supporters of the district's prayer in school crusade to disrespect and dishonor any religion or belief not their own."

Danielle Sokolow is a 17-year-old senior at Clear Brook High School in the Clear Creek Independent School District. She is one of five Jews in her school.

Two years ago some guys at her school -- she had known them for years -- started calling to her, "Hey, it's the Jew. Here comes the Jew." She took it as a joke at first, casual teenager teasing. Then it started occurring more often: "Jew, hey, Jew." It made her mad, but she didn't tell anyone, hoping it would just go away.

She opened up her locker one Friday and a note fell out. On the outside, it read, "To the Jew." Inside, it said, "Hey Jew. Where's your number?" And it had a big swastika on it.

"It brought tears to my eyes. I kind of went to class." Danielle told a teacher she was close to, who urged her to go to the principal. Danielle said no, she didn't want to do that, and made the teacher promise to let her handle it.

When she went back to her locker later in the day, one of the guys who'd been calling her "Jew" was hanging around it. She challenged him; he grabbed the note and ran away. Danielle called after him, even more upset now that she had lost the note, her proof of what had happened.

That weekend she told her parents, who called the boy's parents. She didn't expect that to do much for her life in school, though. That's a separate world from parents. She also told a couple of her close friends what had happened. These close friends happened to be African-American, and they were outraged. By the time she got to school again Monday, word had been spread.

"Everyone knew this was a big deal. This was not something you do. All these people at my school, I had all these people against these four guys."

She ran into one of the kids involved in baiting her, and instead of his usual routine, Danielle says, he hurried past her without saying anything. Later that day, she was called to the office and told to talk to the sergeant who worked in the school. He had heard about the incident, questioned her about it, confirmed it.

"He talked to the parents, threatened to take their kids to jail. That pretty much solved it."

Danielle, who ultimately reported what happened to the Anti-Defamation League, seems mature far beyond her years when she talks about how people say dumb things, often not realizing they are anti-Semitic or not realizing that she is Jewish. These jokes aren't funny, she says. They hurt. Most people, she says, think the days of anti-Semitism are over. "They think, "Oh, that's gone. It's not here anymore.' "

Still, though, Danielle is fortunate in many regards. She attends a school that clearly demonstrated zero tolerance for anti-Semitism. This came not only from a proactive administration but also from its students. What these guys had done was not cool. And they got shut down.

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