Swastikas at School

After swastika graffiti is found at the Pierce Middle School in Milton, Massachusetts, Principal Karen Spaulding’s first steps are a matter of district protocol: document, report, investigate, and punish those responsible. But her next steps are less clear.

Case Excerpt

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Dr. Karen Spaulding was in her tidy, bright yellow office at Pierce Middle School just a few days before the winter holiday break when she heard the news. The school day had only recently ended, but it was the first day of winter, and the skies were already growing dark. The sounds of the bustling hallways finally quieted, and Spaulding was catching up on some work. After five years as a principal, she now accepted that her “to-do” list would never be finished. A knock on the door confirmed that this would be the case: one of the custodians discovered swastika graffiti in the upstairs boys’ bathroom. Upon hearing the news, Spaulding put her head down on her desk. “My heart and stomach just sank.”[1] She was shocked and deeply disappointed, but she picked up her head and then picked up the phone. Her first call was to the superintendent. Spaulding recognized: “You have to respond and take hold of your school. Otherwise, the incident takes hold of your school.”

She understood what her next steps were, as a matter of protocol and procedure, for hate graffiti: first, lock the room and document the graffiti. Next, notify the local police before beginning a school-based investigation to identify, and decide on appropriate consequences for, the student responsible. She knew that it would be important to closely follow protocol so that those involved would be held accountable: this included guarding student privacy and any disciplinary details. More so, she added: “You do try to get to that place where they will say out loud: ‘Yes, I did this,’ because you want them to take ownership and learn from it, and move forward.”

After reviewing the video from the cameras in the school hallways and isolating the timing of the graffiti, it did not take long to identify the students who were likely responsible for the swastikas. Yet as Spaulding reviewed the footage, she thought about all of the other students going in and out of the bathroom who may have seen the graffiti: What about those who saw, but said, or did, nothing? Or those who saw, and now felt less welcome at Pierce Middle School? For Spaulding, a swastika was more than a symbol of hate: “It was a threat.” She explained: “That's not just ‘I don’t like you’; that's ‘I want you to die.’”

The training Spaulding received in graduate school and the district guidelines were clear on how to respond to hate graffiti in terms of discipline. “But,” she reflected, “it’s not just about disciplining the child. It’s about putting safety nets and supports in place for those who might be affected, either directly or indirectly, as well as communicating to the community.” She needed to send out a letter to parents as quickly as possible: “I don’t want them to be sitting around the dinner table and the kid saying, ‘Oh by the way, there were some swastika graffiti in the bathrooms.’ And the parents being like ‘What, what?’” She emphasized: “I want to be the one to get the message to parents.”

Discussion Questions

1. Dr. Spaulding underscores the importance of following protocol and procedure for responding to a hate crime. Why does she believe that it is important? What protocol and procedure apply in your own setting?

2. Dr. Spaulding notes: “You have to respond and take hold of your school. Otherwise, the incident takes hold of your school.” What is she seeking to avoid, specifically?

3. In the student population, about whom does Dr. Spaulding express concern? How might she prioritize, and respond to, different students’ needs? What stakeholders might she be concerned about in the adult community?

4. Spaulding considers the swastika to be more than a hate symbol: “It was a threat.” How might this inform her response? Is there a hierarchy of hate symbols? How serious is this?

5. Imagining yourself as Dr. Spaulding, draft the letter to the parents. What messages do you want to be sure to convey? Is there anything you hope to avoid?



Expand for Citation

[1] All quotes from Dr. Karen Spaulding: Dr. Karen Spaulding, interviews by author, Milton, MA, July 28 and July 31, 2017.

Additional Content

Principal Spaulding's December 2016 Letter

Principal Spaulding's March 2017 Letter