We take this incident very seriously," Dr. Janice Dime told The Jewish Standard on Wednesday, discussing measures taken by Paramus High School in response to a student’s display of a swastika tattoo on her midriff.
The Paramus Public Schools superintendent said that while the school is constrained by state law not to provide details about the specific steps that have been taken, she intends to work with the ninth-grader personally to "ensure that she understands the gravity of her actions."
Dime also said she will find out what part of the ninth-grade Holocaust curriculum the girl has been exposed to and will consider putting into place an individual program, perhaps having the student meet with a survivor or do a report on an appropriate topic.
"I intend to meet with her face to face," said Dime, who said that the student’s behavior was both "appalling and unacceptable." The superintendent indicated that school officials have already met with the ninth-grader and her parents.
"Her parents were horrified" to learn of their daughter’s tattoo, she said. "I understand that she will go back to the tattoo parlor and have it overdone." Dime also noted that the offending student told school officials that she didn’t get the tattoo "because she was against Jews."
Saying that the school "is a very diverse microcosm of the world and we try to be a force for respect and understanding," Dime added that "anything counter to that will not be tolerated."
She said that while no parents or students have called her office, she knows that "people were offended." She added that she hopes to work with Rabbi Arthur Weiner, spiritual leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, to develop future anti-bias initiatives.
According to Dime, some acts are committed because "children may be calling out for help. We need to ask the deeper questions," she said. "What can we, as a caring school community, do?"
Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, spoke with Dime on Tuesday, offering the assistance of his agency.
"I sensed that the school was taking the issue seriously," he said after speaking with the superintendent. Nevertheless, he added, he encountered a "familiar dilemma in cases such as this," where an institution is unable to provide specific information because of the student’s age.
Neuer said the ADL plans to share recommendations with the school on dealing with this kind of incident. "It is imperative that the school send a clear message" that such behavior will not be tolerated, he said. "The students will be looking to see what’s done."
"While kids are hard-wired to shock" and we must keep this occurrence in perspective, said Neuer, this was not a case where someone used a pencil to send her message, but rather etched "a permanent statement on her body."
Stressing that the punitive aspect of the incident is less important than the educational aspect, he said Dime emphasized that the school’s curriculum already includes Holocaust and genocide studies.
"After this exposure to the suffering of the Jewish people and the evils of Nazism," Neuer said, it is particularly troubling that someone would behave in this way.
Neuer said the school will no doubt be watching closely the progress of "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," which is before the Supreme Court. The case involves a free-speech dispute involving a high school student suspended after unfurling a banner bearing those words just outside school grounds in Juneau, Alaska, during the Olympic torch relay in ’00’.. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco held that the school could not suspend the student because it could not demonstrate that he had disrupted the "school’s educational mission."
Neuer said the Paramus incident highlights the findings of the recent ADL study showing that while anti-Semitic incidents in New Jersey declined for the second consecutive year, the number of incidents was actually higher in Bergen and Passaic counties. The report also showed a disturbing number of anti-Semitic acts at educational institutions, including public schools and colleges. Neuer said that this situation is particularly troubling in New Jersey, which mandates teaching about the Holocaust. "We must clearly redouble our efforts," he said.
Rabbi Arthur Weiner, religious leader of the Paramus Jewish Center, said that he considers this an isolated incident, pointing out that while he has been with the synagogue for 11 years, this is the first time something of this kind has occurred.
"The Nazis are not about to march through Paramus," he said. "I’ve been in touch with the administration of the Paramus public schools and I trust that they are handling [this incident] appropriately."