Combating hate in schools, Hewlett's Michael Cohen may have the answer


Continuing a discussion begun last school year on how to combat hate after incidents of swastikas found in the boys’ bathroom in Woodmere Middle School, the Hewlett-Woodmere school district’s Board of Education heard a proposal by Michael Cohen, the Eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Cohen presented his ideas at an early summer board meeting and returned for more in-depth discussion at the Aug. 23 meeting. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the famed Holocaust survivor, is a Jewish global human rights organization that researches the Holocaust and hate in historic and contemporary context.     

“It’s really an important conversation that we need to have and we’re trying to be proactive and have a very successful 23, 24 year,” Superintendent Ralph Marino said.

After the swastikas were found in March, the school district held a series of assemblies for middle school students with renowned Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a Hewlett resident who has traveled the world recounting her family’s Holocaust survival story, which was made famous in her 1996 memoir, “Four Perfect Pebbles,” co-written with Lila Perl.   

The proposal for new programming came from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, with Cohen sharing new ideas. He intended to share his specific programming options, but was met with questions from the board,

Six program variations made up the options presented to the board including interactive workshops, educational workshops, assembly style meetings, professional development workshops, forums and leadership-based sessions.

Cohen opened his presentation thanking the board for their diligent work in trying to eliminate hate in the school community.

“Seeing the back and forth conversations, putting all this together and working on this and seeing the seriousness that this board has taken in addressing the issues that the district has had is really incredible,” Cohen said.

He got through the first program description before the board reevaluated if this system of tackling hate was right for Hewlett-Woodmere. The selection had a great deal of emphasis on teaching students about cyberbullying and recognizing, reporting and speaking about unsafe or alarming statements made online.

The board voiced concerns that this type of programming would not fix the non-online hateful acts in their district from the previous year.

Trustee Francois Tenenbaum was disappointed to see the lack of institutionally impacted hate mentioned in the proposal plan.

“Although it’s extremely concerning that some people will post all sorts of crazy things on the internet and try to bully people, it becomes dangerous because institutions are endorsing these things because institutions have the power that an individual doesn’t have,” Tenenbaum said.

The board, while saying the programming had benefits, was also concerned about cost, asking Cohen about a discounted rate through BOCES. Rates were from $750 to $40,000.   

“I don’t know if there’s a price you could put on the value of these programs to say we only want to spend X, Y, Z,” Board President Debra Sheinin said.

The trustees decided that financial decisions would be made once the administration determines which programs fit the best. Sheinin suggested the district start with the middle school students to provide the education where it appears it is needed the most.

After administration chooses programming options, the education board is expected to sign off on it.

The next board meetings are on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., which is a work meeting, the public can attend, but usually there is no public comment, and on Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m., a regular board meeting. Both meetings are at Woodmere Education Center, 1 Johnson Place, Woodmere.

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