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Sequoia Union High School District responds to criticism over swastika drawings

The district said it offers multiple programs to teach diversity after controversy at Woodside High School
Sequoia Union High School District office in Redwood City on Nov. 19, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Responding to complaints over its handling of two swastikas that were drawn on the Woodside High School campus, Sequoia Union High School District pushed back on criticism of how it has handled the matter and emphasized it has programs to address hate speech and behaviors.

The two symbols, which appeared to be Nazi swastikas, were found scratched or drawn on the campus pavement on Nov. 1. School administrators reported the incident to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which conducted a safety assessment of the campus and investigated the incident, Principal Karen van Putten said in a Nov. 3 letter to parents.

Arthur Wilkie, school district spokesperson, said in an email to this media organization that “Woodside (High School) and District administration took this matter seriously, and remains committed to fostering a safe and inclusive environment in its schools."

In her letter, Principal van Putten emphasized that Woodside High School does not tolerate any hateful speech or actions on its campus. 

According to van Putten, a staff investigation along with the sheriff's office found the symbols were "manji," Japanese Buddhist symbols that are used in anime, a popular form of comics and graphic novels and were not meant to threaten any ethnic or religious group, an explanation that has angered some in the community. (The manji is used specifically as a gang emblem in the series Tokyo Revengers.) 

The swastika symbol was appropriated by the Nazis before and during World War II as a symbol of mythical Aryan power and became linked with hate and terrorism due to Nazi atrocities, particularly toward Jews in Europe. Scholars say the symbol has ancient and sacred origins and signified prosperity and good luck in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a religious symbol in Native American cultures and was used by the Druids, Celts and others. In Buddhism, it represents the footprints of the Buddha.

There are some differences between the Nazi symbol and the one used in other religions. The Nazi swastika's cross is centered on a 45-degree axis, while the Japanese symbol and that of others is centered on a 90-degree, vertical line, for example.

But in the Western world and Europe, it remains clouded by the hatred and violence it represents. It is still used by white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups as hate symbols. At a recent demonstration in Palo Alto at Embarcadero Road, a masked man was seen protesting against the war between Palestine and Israel while displaying an Israeli flag; the Star of David at the center having been replaced by the Nazi swastika, photos sent to this news organization show.

The incident at Woodside High, regardless of its purported intention, only further inflamed feelings that it was antisemitic and prompted some to wonder why the school – and the school district – haven't used the Nov. 1 incident as a teachable moment for all students to learn about the power of reckless actions and cultural sensitivity. How schools will address the swastika amid changing demographics where cultures and religious symbolism might clash remains unclear.

A parent whose child attends a school in the district said that van Putten's email didn't go far enough to condemn hate speech and outline what is being done school- and district-wide to combat it or to link parents and students to information about these programs.

"This was a missed opportunity," the parent said in an email to van Putten and the district board. 

This incident was a time for the school to lead on the issue by providing resources, information and much stronger words than were offered. The school leadership missed a chance to educate students on how their actions are perceived and the harm they can create. Instead, the school was "basically sweeping things under the carpet and saying, 'False alarm,'" they said.

The manji argument is a well-known gaslighting excuse for antisemitic speech, they added.

While they were glad the school called for a formal investigation, they thought it was not enough. The parent said they want to know what the district and the school are doing to fight intolerance in its many forms and to ensure that parents understand that their children might be involved. They also want to learn the specifics about how these programs are evidence-based methods to fight intolerance and what the district is doing to monitor their effectiveness.

Wilkie said the district has multiple programs to include students and offer support. The programs include Students Offering Support, which trains and supports youth advocates on conflict mediation, empathy and respect, and violence prevention, and ninth-grade circles where students discuss identity, diversity, and school culture.

"Students also engage in restorative practice conversations, have access to wellness centers on campus, and benefit from the District’s partnerships with community-based organizations," he said.

The district also launched the Say Something anonymous reporting system in all of its schools at the beginning of the current school year. Students and staff can use the system to report warning signs and threats by submitting text tips to the Say Something mobile app or website.

School staff has received professional development training on issues such as implicit bias and mediation and conflict resolution with the district’s outside community partners, he said.

When asked what repercussions the student faces regarding defacing or vandalizing the school outside of the symbol issues, Wilkie said the district can't legally release information regarding students. The Sheriff's Office did not return requests for comment regarding its investigation and findings, nor whether the student faces vandalism charges.


About the Author: Sue Dremann

Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats.
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