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A Jewish substitute teacher in Toronto says he felt like he was the victim of a Hitler salute from two Grade 6 students at Pleasant Public School, located south of Steeles Avenue between Yonge and Bathurst Streets, on Feb. 24.

According to a letter sent to parents from principal Brian Fong, students were asked to raise their hands in response to a question. When two students kept their hands raised for a longer period of time, the teacher interpreted their behaviour as a Nazi salute, the letter said.

The two 12-year-old students may or may not have intended to do a Nazi salute, but their actions came after two separate incidents at Toronto schools earlier in the month in which students purposefully directed Nazi salutes at Jewish people.

On Feb. 17, two students at Valley Park Middle School in Flemingdon Park directed the salute towards a Jewish teacher who was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Earlier in February, a Jewish student in Grade 8 at Charles H. Best Junior Middle School in Bathurst Manor was targeted with both a Hitler salute and a swastika made out of blocks.

It was in this climate that the substitute teacher at Pleasant viewed the actions of his students. Whether or not they were purposefully antisemitic, Fong wrote in his letter that it is important to educate students about hateful behaviour.

“As a result of what has occurred, we believe it’s important for students to be able to understand the impact of hate symbols and will be working to incorporate this as a learning opportunity to underscore our commitment to create a safe and respectful environment at our school,” Fong wrote. He added that, in terms of immediate action, the school is arranging a program with well-known Holocaust educator Michelle Glied-Goldstein.

Shortly after the incident, the substitute teacher reached out to B’nai Brith Canada. Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said the principal and the rest of the staff at Pleasant Public School are treating the incident with the seriousness that it deserves, including immediately calling the students to the office when the substitute teacher reported what happened, reaching out to the parents of the students, and deciding on the appropriate response.

Mostyn also said that, considering the recent run of overtly antisemitic actions at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), it should not fall on to the individual schools that are impacted to address antisemitism when it does rear its head. Instead, he wants to see a more concentrated effort from the TDSB, as well as other school boards and governing bodies, to proactively address antisemitism.

To that end, Mostyn lauded the recent announcement by the province of Ontario for its new plan to combat antisemitism in schools, which includes an increase in Holocaust education. However, he also added that education alone cannot eradicate the kinds of issues where students purposefully direct vile and hateful actions towards individuals, especially individuals in positions of authority.

“There does have to be sanctions against students when they act in such a disrespectful manner… This can’t be accepted behaviour in our schools,” he said. “The students need to understand both what is right and wrong, and that there are consequences for bad behaviour, just as those of us in adult society understand every day.”

B’nai Brith and other Jewish organizations have long been receiving complaints that antisemitism is not being taken seriously enough by the TDSB, Mostyn said. Since these recent incidents are especially visible, he hopes they can spur some action.

“The TDSB needs to take this moment and reflect long and hard on how they are going to change these trend lines and begin addressing antisemitism with the seriousness it deserves—and immediately,” he said.

In a statement published on Feb. 22, after the Nazi salute was performed at Valley Park school, TDSB director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins shared some of the steps the board has already been taking over the past year to combat antisemitism, including sharing resources about it with all its schools; offering the education program Carrying Holocaust Testimony following antisemitic incidents and also sharing it proactively through the TDSB system; and continuing its tri-annual reporting on racism and hate incidents.

“This is an urgent situation and we must interrupt and confront racism, discrimination and hate, in all of its forms, when we see or hear it,” Russell-Rawlins wrote. “It is my commitment that we focus on eradicating it at both the systemic and local school levels and that we will move toward more proactively educating about the roots of racism and hate.”

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