Bullying? Freedom of speech? And who’s Jewish?

Bullying? Freedom of speech? And who’s Jewish?

Fair Lawn High School garners support, criticism for investigation of student tweets

Adi Vaxman is interviewed about the Fair Lawn controversy.
Adi Vaxman is interviewed about the Fair Lawn controversy.

It’s complicated — and according to people monitoring the situation, the media have distorted the circumstances and even misrepresented the facts.

The controversy in question involves an investigation of alleged online bullying, perpetrated by one Fair Lawn High School student against another. The subject behind the controversy is Israel.

Was it, in fact, bullying? Is the investigation politically motivated — as claimed by the writer of the tweets in question? Is the school trying to curtail her First Amendment rights?

For that matter, is she, as the New York Times reported, “an Israeli Jew”?

The writer, 16-year-old high school junior Bethany Koval — who has written thousands of anti-Israel comments on Twitter — was called in by school administrators after they were notified of a particular Twitter posting. There, Bethany celebrated the fact that a pro-Israel student had defriended her, later offering to send that girl’s name to a third person. In later communications, Bethany suggested that school administrators were targeting her for her anti-Israel views.

Bethany Koval
Bethany Koval

Bethany also recorded her meeting with school administrators and posted the audio on Twitter.

Thousands of people commented online in her defense, and the school has received many phone calls questioning its actions. Many of her supporters have been using the hashtag #IStandWithBenny.

The Fair Lawn police department has said that the school received no “specific threats.” Still, at least one video, from the group calling itself Anonymous, seems to be a bit ominous, a Fair Lawn parent said.

Pointing out that he can’t say very much — the confidential investigation, led by a state-mandated anti-bullying specialist and a supporting team, is ongoing — Fair Lawn School Superintendent Bruce Watson told this reporter that in his opinion, “the media has reported a lot of misinformation. We’re carefully following the state anti-bullying law and doing an investigation of bullying — not of the personal or political positions of anyone.

“It’s important to know that the Fair Lawn school district and administration respects everyone’s rights and doesn’t do censorship or judgment. We’re dedicated to protecting students who bring up the claim of bullying.”

In a statement issued by his office on January 7, Superintendent Watson affirmed that “The Fair Lawn School District recognizes and respects individuals’ First Amendment rights to free speech.”

Rabbi Uri Goldstein of Ahavat Achim Orthodox Congregation of Fair Lawn also has questioned the media’s role in this situation. “The real culprit here is the media,” he said. “The school is being very vigilant about what appeared to be bullying,” and the student — who, like many teenagers, has strong opinions and puts them on Twitter — “wants to see it as being oppressed for her ideology.”

But the media, he said, “accepted the idea that she was being oppressed, rather than looking at it in a more balanced way.” In fact, he said, the issue focuses on specific tweets in which she appeared to be alluding to fellow students.

“The school may have been overly vigilant, but what really struck me was reading actual statements by the girl, who seems to be admitting that the school’s interest is in tweets against fellow students. She — as an overzealous teen — turns that into censorship and ideological oppression, and news outlets uncritically picked up on that.”

Adi Vaxman of Fair Lawn, a parent who organized a rally on Sunday in support of the school’s right — and in fact its responsibility — to pursue an alleged case of bullying, said that more than 100 people came to the gathering. It was advertised on a special Facebook event page and drew mainly Fair Lawn residents.

It was a quiet and respectful gathering, she said. That assessment was echoed by Sergeant Paul Scott of the Fair Lawn police department, who said that it was “peaceful and quiet.

“The media is what caused this whole thing to blow out of proportion,” Ms. Vaxman said. “It’s not about politics or freedom of speech. [Bethany] is just a child. She was crying wolf and she caused a ripple effect. I’m sure she didn’t know that or mean it.”

The problem is that while the teen was not malicious, “she’s not educated well on how dangerous the Internet can be,” Ms. Vaxman continued. “I don’t blame her for the ripple effect.” The rally “was not just about that girl. She’s just a kid.

“What the school did was to protect the other kids, and protect her as well. It can turn around and hurt her too.

“We created the rally to support the school administration, because they’re getting a lot of criticism and heat and media attention for the wrong reasons. While some media claim “they’re reprimanding her because of her opinions, they called her in because she shared [someone’s] personal information with someone on the Internet. The other girl felt scared.”

Ms. Vaxman said the topic of the correspondence, Israel, “contributed to the storm because a lot of activists involved in the chain of messages are scary people.” She added that some students definitely felt — and continue to feel — intimidated.

“The school is getting criticism for doing the right thing,” she said. “I keep thinking if this was my child,” whether the one who did the posting or was the subject of it, “I would want the school to be involved. I don’t want them to get negative attention or threats. It’s insane.”

Ms. Vaxman wants to show the school that “the families in town support their authority and ability to deal with bullying, harassment, and especially cyber-bullying. It’s dangerous to share personal information over the Internet.”

She cited one online video that caused her particular concern was “posted by Anonymous, a well-known cyber-terrorism group. This was not some kid posting a video. It’s scary. It threatens the principal and vice principal,” she said. “They’re people who live in this town, with families. It’s the job of the school to protect our kids. I don’t want them to be scared to do that. They shouldn’t be targeted for doing their job.”

Ms. Vaxman said that several parents have challenged Bethany’s claims that she is Jewish, Israeli, or an Israeli Jew — claims that were picked up by the New York Times and other media outlets.

A parent at the march told her that he knew Bethany’s mother in high school; although she was brought up Jewish, she converted to Catholicism. Bethany’s father is Catholic as well. Bethany was brought up in a Catholic household, not in a Jewish home, and not as a Jew, he said. Other people who know the family told Ms. Vaxman that they do not know of any connection between the family and Israel. (This reporter also was given the same information from another source, who wishes to remain anonymous.)

Fair Lawn High School students at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies told a school assembly about their experiences with anti-Israel bullying.
Fair Lawn High School students at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies told a school assembly about their experiences with anti-Israel bullying.

Ms. Vaxman said that from what she can tell, “all the students are really upset. I spoke with one student who was scared to go to school.” Even her own children are asking her about the situation, “even the youngest one.

“I hope the school will complete the investigation and do what they need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “I hope they will feel empowered to deal with this situation, and that the administration and educators will use this as an opportunity to educate our children about the dangers of the Internet and how quickly things can grow out of proportion. No one got hurt, but it could have ended another way.”

Rabbi Ronald Roth of the Conservative Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel also has heard claims that Bethany is not an Israeli Jew.

“If this is true, it does bring up questions of her credibility,” he said. “Not her political views or if she is a bully — but it’s just odd. Why would she describe herself in terms that are not corroborated? It leads to questions about her general credibility.”

Rabbi Roth said that after reading a statement on the website of the Anti-Defamation League, he had a “long conversation” with ADL’s New Jersey director, Josh Cohen.

The ADL, he said, believes that the matter should be “based solely on law and facts, leaving it to the school to fully investigate and apply the law justly.” After his discussion with Mr. Cohen, he endorsed the statement and read it to his congregation on Shabbat. “It got a positive response,” he said.

Pointing out that his congregation includes a large number of high school families, Rabbi Roth said, “If the school thinks she’s bullying, let them investigate.”

The ADL’s Mr. Cohen said that when he saw stories about the controversy in the media, he reached out to Superintendent Watson. “My understanding from our brief conversation is that there are a lot of issues at play here,” he said.

“It must be treated seriously. The district followed the law, and that must be allowed to take its course based solely on the law and facts of the case and not on public opinion. I couldn’t disagree more strongly with the anti-Israel views expressed in the tweets, but I recognize her First Amendment rights.

“She had the right to put her views online. At issue is the tweet that threatened to expose personal information.”

Rabbi Jeremy Donath of the Orthodox Congregation Darchei Noam in Fair Lawn reported having spoken about the situation on Shabbat. “My overall message is that we should be grateful to live in a state in which the safety of its students comes first,” he said. “I applaud the efforts of the school administration to do their due diligence, to let the authorities look into the bullying matter, to ensure that the safety concerns of all of their students are prioritized.

“I shared the following Torah thought from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch,” the 19th century German intellectual, “who has an idea that he develops about the measure of justice in ancient Egyptian society as witnessed in the Exodus story. He says that the measure of justice in a society is deemed not by the way the society protects the natural citizens, the wealthy, or the well connected, but by the way the law looks out for the weakest and most vulnerable elements of society.

“I am proud that we have very strong anti-bullying laws in New Jersey, in an effort to look out for all persons who are made to feel unsafe, and all victims of bullying.

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