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Mattituck-Cutchogue officials respond to students’ racist comments

Officials in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District are taking steps in response to “several” reported incidents of students using racist language, “acting in association” with anti-Semitism and joking about their support of and admiration for Nazism and Adolf Hitler.

The acts have primarily taken place among students in grades seven through 10, according to a Jan. 4 letter sent by principal Shawn Petretti to middle and high school parents. He did not disclose the specifics of any incidents.

“It was brought to our attention that on a few occasions, some of our younger junior [high] and high school students spoke or acted in a way that could be associated with anti-Semitism,” Superintendent Jill Gierasch said in a statement to The Suffolk Times.

In response to these incidents, the principal said, the district has invited representatives of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County to speak to middle and high school students Jan. 29. 

Helen Turner, director of youth education at the Glen Cove center, said the presentation to be given in Mattituck is still in the planning stages. 

“What we intend to do with the discussion is to have students understand the gravity of the situation but also turn inward and look at their own actions — whether there’s prejudice, bias, anti-Semitism in their thinking — and to take a look at the choices that we all make,” she said.

In his letter, Mr. Petretti said that these anti-Semitic incidents are not isolated to Mattituck, and are occurring across the state. 

In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools and on college campuses had nearly doubled in a single year. Also in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 58.1 percent of the 1,749 anti-religious hate crimes that occurred nationwide had been motivated by anti-Jewish bias. 

The emergence of social media apps that contain damaging language and messages of pro-Nazism has raised concern that anti-Semitic rhetoric among students could increase. 

One such app, as reported in December by Motherboard, a subsidiary of Vice, is TikTok. Intended for creating and sharing short videos, TikTok absorbed the popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly in 2017 and became the most downloaded non-game app in the Apple App Store by the first quarter of 2018. 

Musical.ly had targeted a younger demographic, with half of its iPhone users and 60 percent of its Android users between the ages of 13 and 24, according to the site App Annie, which analyzes web traffic patterns.

Mr. Petretti said TikTok is where some local students may have come across messages of pro-Nazism or anti-Semitism.

“Much of the content is targeted to children and teens and is delivered through comedic videos clearly sending the wrong message to our children,” Mr. Petretti wrote in the letter to parents.

TikTok works similarly to Instagram: Users can search other users, hashtags, and scroll down their feed of followers. Much like YouTube, the app has internal celebrities, most notably 16-year-old American singer Jacob Sartorius, who has 19.9 million “fans” or followers.

A 2018 poll conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which interviewed 1,350 American adults, found that 22 percent of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure what they’ve heard about it — about twice the percentage of adults who said the same.

Lauren Gilbert, who has two children in Cutchogue East Elementary School, said in a statement that the younger generation is “highly unaware” of the severity of their anti-Semitic remarks.

“Whether they are learning it at home or from some social media app, I don’t believe for a second that in 2019 our middle and high school students are making foul remarks about the Holocaust and supporting Hitler while also knowing all the facts,” Ms. Gilbert said.

But the problem may not be unique to TikTok. In December, one of YouTube’s most popular users, PewDiePie — who currently has 76 million followers — came under fire after recommending a video channel called E;R, which also contains racial slurs and references Nazis.

Felix Kjellberg, the face behind PewDiePie, has since apologized for promoting the channel, but that hasn’t stopped millions of his teenage followers from watching E;R’s videos.

While unfamiliar with TikTok’s harmful rhetoric, Ms. Turner said YouTubers like PewDiePie will say anything for attention.

“YouTubers are always just looking for different jokes or ways to get clicks, including being inflammatory to younger audiences,” she said.

Ms. Gierasch said the district administration feels it’s important to work with parents as partners in educating students. “We also believe it is our responsibility to make our parents aware of social media apps that promote negative messages that do not support the district’s mission,” she said in a statement.

Superintendent David Gamberg said in an email that he was not aware of the comments made in the Mattituck district and that neither Greenport nor Southold schools have experienced anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate-based language, which are not tolerated in either district. 

The superintendent added that he’s heard of TikTok, but is “not at all familiar with the platform.” He said schools face a growing responsibility to teach “digital citizenship.”

“Students growing up today must realize the tremendous power and responsibility of having access to a digital world,” Mr. Gamberg said. “Everything that they say and do on social media leaves a digital footprint.”

Ms. Gierasch and Mr. Petretti declined a request for an interview.

Ms. Turner said she’s seen an increase in anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas drawn on school properties across Long Island during her two years at the center. She believes it’s due partially to the current atmosphere of the country.

“We’re living in a time of much more extreme language. We are seeing a rise in things like anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic language, and a rise in different versions of prejudice and bias,” she said. “I think students are responding to this through all different avenues.” 

Mr. Petretti said he will meet with each middle and high school grade to discuss the impact and severity of the comments.

“I am going to make it very clear to our students that I hold them to a high standard and that any further acts of bias will be dealt with swiftly and to the full extent of our Code of Conduct,” he wrote. 

The Code of Conduct prohibits students in the district from “engaging in conduct that endangers the safety, morals, health or welfare of others,” including discrimination or “the use of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability as an improper basis for treating another in a negative manner.”

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Photo caption: Mattituck school officials said students using the TikTok app have viewed videos containing messages of pro-Nazism as well as anti-Semitism.