Morris Township school hopes to turn swastika incident into teachable moment

Frelinghuysen Middle School logo

By Kevin Coughlin

Students at Frelinghuysen Middle School began studying a new topic in their social studies classes this week.

The history of symbols is a response to four swastikas discovered on a boys bathroom stall last month.

Frelinghuysen Middle School logo“One thing we felt strongly about as a school community was, this does not represent us. It goes against the values we teach and reinforce in school,” FMS Principal Joseph Uglialoro said of the etched Nazi emblems.

The Feb. 23, 2017, incident was reported to the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office as a hate crime. So far, nobody has been apprehended, said Uglialoro, who has sent two letters to parents.

Soon after the discovery, administrators and teachers met to discuss how to move forward. “To teachers’ credit, they said, ‘This has to be a teachable moment,'” the principal said. “Particularly at this moment in our nation’s history.”

Bomb threats, desecration of cemeteries and other hate crimes have been reported across the metropolitan region and the country. Leaders at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown say they are tightening security after consulting with local authorities.

Many FMS students expressed bewilderment about the swastikas and what they symbolized, Uglialoro said. So, social studies teachers this week have introduced them to the history of symbols — as tools of hate, and of love, compassion and tolerance, the principal said.

Next week, homeroom classes will create positive symbols to display on their classroom doors. “We want our hallways to communicate our values,” Uglialoro said.

Guidance counselors will visit social studies classes later this month to discuss the nature of bias and prejudice, and why it’s especially important in our diverse community to oppose hateful behavior, Uglialoro said.

Mackey Pendergrast, superintendent of the Morris School District, called the Frelinghuysen matter an “isolated incident,” and praised teachers at the Morris Township school for doing a “fantastic job of addressing this issue” in classes.

Rabbi Ellie Miller
Rabbi Ellie Miller

Rabbi Ellie Miller of Temple B’nai Or spoke with Pendergrast and Uglialoro after the incident, and commended them for their response. “They are working hard to keep this kind of hatred out of our community,” she told her congregants.

Although her temple has been fortunate so far, Miller cited other instances — bomb threats to Jewish centers, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, a shot fired into an Indiana synagogue, graffiti sprayed on a bridge in the South Mountain reservation in South Orange — as reminders that “as Jews we are still seen by some as the ‘other,’” outside of the mainstream of American society.

The rabbi said she was heartened by Greater Morristown’s “unwavering support,” and said nobody can remain silent in the face of persecution.

“We must raise our voices against anti-Semitism and against hateful rhetoric towards other faiths or marginalized groups,” Miller said in a letter to temple members. “We must continue to stand against hatred and bigotry, and stand with anyone whose rights are infringed upon.”

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  1. It’s so disheartening that this type of ugliness has come to Morristown. It really seems to speak to the changing social and political climate around us. Were the perpetrators truly anti-Semitic or were they just stupid children who thought it would be a good joke? Even if it was the latter, the issue that swastikas are even considered acceptable to draw as a threat or a prank is equally disturbing as both speak to increased racism and a relaxation of a social convention that made those actions much less likely in the past.

    I like the way the school has responded, with swiftness and using it as a teachable moment.

  2. As a young child, during during WW II, our favorite games after school got out, involved playing war and taking turns “killing the enemy. They known by their hate names, as they were described in the news and I never connected those names with their nationalities. If fact, I was the same nationality as many of them. . One day, I came in for super all excited about how many enemy soldiers we had killed. My horrified aunt, sat me down and told me always to remember that those names we were killing were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters just like us, no matter what nationality they were. Never forgot, No matter who you hate, that person is part of a family, just like yours.