Winnetka, News

NTHS superintendent issues apology for not allowing new Holocaust Remembrance Day activity

New Trier High School Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally acknowledged on Tuesday evening the “hurt” that was caused when he decided to not allow a student commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and told the School Board and the community that he and the school will do better when it comes to combating antisemitism.

Sally read a lengthy prepared statement during the board of education’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20, when he talked about the situation and highlighted the district’s efforts to ensure every student feels like they belong.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is recognized every Jan. 27. Sally said New Trier has historically commemorated the date by displaying bulletin boards around both campuses and making an announcement over the school’s public address system, both of which also happened this year.

This year, a group of students and staff members proposed a new activity: distributing stickers in adviser rooms.

Sally said the administration first learned of the idea on the Monday before Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Saturday.

“After discussion amongst the administration, and based on the short timeline to communicate and prepare advisers for this activity, I made the decision that we would not run the new activity at this time,” he said. “I want to make it clear that no one else, not the equity liaisons, not campus leaders, made this decision. It was mine alone, and was based on the short timeline to communicate and prepare advisers.”

Sally said his reason for saying no was because he did not want to create a situation where Jewish students would feel uncomfortable.

“With 160 different advisers and adviser rooms, it was not the important commemoration of the victims and honoring of the survivors of the Holocaust that was the issue, but current events that are adjacent in many of our students’ minds,” he said. “We know that teens will often tell us what is on their mind, and we would have wanted advisers to think about how to handle non-Holocaust Remembrance Day discussion that could have arisen.

“My goal was to assure that we honored this important day for Jewish students — and all students — while not creating a situation where it could cause them harm.”

But when Sally declined the request to hold the sticker distribution, he said those involved in planning it felt “deep disappointment in New Trier.”

“What I did not understand was the level of enthusiasm that our Jewish students and staff had for this new sticker distribution activity,” he said. “For them, it was a very positive way to be seen more fully at New Trier and represent a way they could put their impact on the day.”

He said he understands why so many were hurt and by denying the activity, “our efforts, my efforts, to help our Jewish students feel like they belong, to feel like they matter at New Trier, have fallen short,” he said.

He added that the administration has met with the students and staff who planned the activity to apologize “for how we communicated the decision and to ensure that their voices are heard in the future.”

One of the district’s goals for New Trier 2030, its strategic plan, is creating a culture of belonging and making sure that all students feel like they belong at the school. Sally said that, going forward, the district will include a goal in that plan that is specifically focused on educating students on antisemitism and how to combat it.

“Along with conversations with our departments, staff members, students and parents, we’re meeting with representatives from the Jewish United Fund and local Jewish leaders as we look to build a better understanding of how we should think about our curriculum, staff training and equity work,” Sally said.

The School Board heard from 12 people during public comment on Feb. 20, with many of them thanking the district for its commitment to equity, and others sharing why Sally’s decision to not hold the sticker distribution activity was hurtful.

Joy Schwartz spoke about how the rise in antisemitism has impacted Jewish communities and said “when something happens in our own community where we feel most at home, we are extraordinarily frightened.”

“It is clear to me, however, that the school’s administration understands that and is responding,” she said. “They are taking this opportunity to take a step back, to listen and learn. They’re willing to hear critical feedback and are deeply engaged, which I appreciate tremendously.”

Sally concluded his statement by saying New Trier’s commitment to being a safe and welcoming school matters the most when a community is hurting, and he said the district’s equity work is a major part of that commitment.

“We must continue to think about how the perspectives we share represent all identities in a way that leads to reflection and understanding through a culture of dignity,” he said. “Now, more than ever, the biggest mistake we could make is to not try to do our best to recognize the identity and humanity of all our students.”

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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