A year after antisemitic incidents rocked Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown, a new program is having positive effect

Belchertown,  Jabish Brook Middle School. 04-10-2023

Belchertown, Jabish Brook Middle School. 04-10-2023

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2024 4:11 PM

Modified: 05-16-2024 9:00 AM


BELCHERTOWN — One day this spring as she was walking past the gymnasium at Jabish Brook Middle School, guidance counselor Jennifer Parker heard something that made her do a double-take — in a good way.

A group of eighth grade girls were calling out a group of seventh grade boys for an offensive joke they made, identifying it as a microaggression. Parker had never heard the word microaggression — a term for commonplace, subtle verbal or behavioral interactions that invoke historical bias or discrimination toward a marginalized group — used by students in a casual interaction like this.

The encounter signaled a major shift in the building’s climate compared to a year ago, when Jabish Brook received national attention for reports of a number of students using Holocaust imagery including gas chambers and the Nazi salute to intimidate Jewish students. More importantly, it showed Parker that the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate program — implemented at the school in the wake of the April 2023 incident — is having an effect on students.

Over the course of the school year, Jabish Brook has been planning and implementing the No Place for Hate program to teach students how their words and actions can harm marginalized groups. The school received its No Place for Hate designation on May 3 after the entire building completed four lessons based on the impact of prejudiced language, microaggressions and identity-based bullying.

The program not only equips students with the tools to recognize and call out instances of bigotry, but advises faculty and staff on how to address and prevent incidents of discrimination in the future.

“It worked as advertised. One of the most poignant references is seeing students advocate and call out peers when seeing microaggression or biased or hurtful language,” Principal Thomas Ruscio said. “(The program) empowers students to realize they can’t be bystanders and allow that type of language to occur without stepping in in some way. The fact that we’ve seen this come to fruition over the course of the year shows it has been really effective.”

Parker echoes that thought.

“We focused on intention versus outcome,” she says. “You may think you’re joking among friends, but look around you. How are others being impacted by what you’re doing or saying?”

The ADL program

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No Place for Hate is a self-directed program that offers students, teachers and faculty tools and techniques to address bias and bullying. The program requires pledging, planning and teaching at least three lessons on identity-based discrimination and bullying based on problem areas that students identify, as well as educational resources from the ADL. Over 1,800 schools across America have completed the program.

After Ruscio applied for the designation, Parker acted as the liaison between the school and the ADL and initiated the process by gauging student input on the current school climate. She held social justice drop-in lunches to learn about student’s experiences. When the students wouldn’t come to her, Parker went to them, hopping from table to table in the cafeteria to get answers to her survey questions.

Parker’s conversations with students identified the four biggest issues on campus: racist language and jokes, homophobic comments, sexist comments on body shaming, and treatment of students with learning disabilities and neurological conditions.

The types of bigoted jokes and comments from students spurred lessons on the impact of language and microaggressions. The targeting of certain groups inspired lessons on indentity-based bullying and cyberbullying. While Parker guided lesson creation by providing resources and feedback, staff members in both seventh and eighth grade teams formed their own workshops, tweaking the source material from ADL to fit the building’s climate.

“Just to get the designation, it took a lot of work cooperatively as a school building to make that possible,” Ruscio said. “We committed a lot of time and resources to work collectively as a staff to plan, implement and address lessons and activities.”

One of the popular activities with students was Here I Stand. Students hear a statement related to identity, then arrange themselves around the room in different corners labeled “I agree,” “I disagree,” “I do not know,” “I would rather not say.” After some discussion, the statements are read again, and students can choose a new corner based on their altered opinions.

“Students were really thinking about the ideas of microaggression and bigotry and recognizing their own experiences and sharing them and looking for steps moving forward about how positive changes can occur,” English teacher Jennifer Poli said. “Students have been really invested in positive aspects of the advisory lessons, like helping others.”

Changing the culture

Poli, Parker and Ruscio have all witnessed the program begin to alter the climate on campus. Students Jada Okyere-Baffour, Janice Okyere-Badfour and Hunter Carr spoke at the School Committee meeting on May 7 to explain the impact of the advisory lessons on their Jabish Brook experience.

“I was really impressed by the students who spoke because they did exactly what we talked about: learned language in the advisory lesson, they truly understood it and used it to advocate for themselves and others,” Poli said.

Jabish Brook plans to continue these lessons in future years, only with a few changes suggested by students. Middle school girls stressed continued work with body shaming, and seventh grade boys admitted that while they took the topics seriously, the presentation could elicit some humor. But overall, students just wanted more time with each lesson.

“We have really awesome students and despite the moments of immaturity at times, I was very impressed with the student’s willingness to stop and listen and learn from other perspectives. I’m hopeful moving forward,” Parker said.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.