At the only public high school in Reading, Mass., swastikas and other hateful graffiti have become a regular occurrence.
A new report from the Boston Globe reveals the extent of the problem at Reading Memorial High School, where Nazi symbols and racial and homophobic slurs have popped up at least 30 times since May 2017.
School officials tell the Globe police have investigated the incidents for months, interviewing possible witnesses and reviewing security footage, but still have no suspects. The steady stream of hate speech found all over the school has sparked divided responses, with some area residents defending the vandal’s (or vandals’) right to free speech.
As the Globe reports, while swastikas have been a recurring symbol, there has been all manner of racial slurs popping up at the high school in the past few months:
In June, the words “Gas the Jews” were found written on a brick inside a vestibule in the lobby of Parker Middle School in Reading. Two days before Halloween, a high school student found slurs threatening the LGBTQ community, according to a letter the school e-mailed to parents. Soon after, a high school student and a staff member discovered racist slurs targeting black people in a stairwell and a bathroom. The following week, two more swastikas as well as graffiti threatening “white people” were found in a high school bathroom.
While the community has tried a number of events to try to address the hateful vandalism, including rallies, vigils, and anti-discrimination trainings and lessons, nothing seems to have worked so far. And at least one Reading resident, William C. Brown, has publicly defended the vandalism, writing in a recent letter to the editor for the Reading Patch:
Racial slurs, anti-Semitic or calling someone a ‘f**’ no matter how offensive or repulsive it may be is FREEDOM of SPEECH guaranteed by the FIRST AMENDMENT of the CONSTITUTION of the UNITED STATES.
Brown doubled down on that defense this week at a select board meeting, the Globe writes, with the 88-year-old telling the room he would “exercise his ‘Second Amendment right’ if anyone tried to take away his first.”
Ah yes, the hill every “I’m not racist, I just love free speech” asshat wants to die on.
Sherilla Lestrade, a 42-year-old black woman, and mother of a middle-school-age son, reminded Brown that a thing called the 14th Amendment exists.
“Sir, I totally agree it is your right to hate anyone you love to hate,” said the Boston resident. “But it is also other people’s right not to be discriminated against because of who they choose to love, what color they are, how they choose to praise whomever it is they praise or not praise.”
Brown later said he wasn’t defending vandalism, just (hate) speech.
Unfortunately, the incidents at Reading High School fall right in line with larger nationwide trends. According to an FBI report released this week, the number of hate crimes spiked across the country in 2017. In Massachusetts, the number of reported hate incidents increased 9 percent.
Reading Memorial High School students and residents of the town have stressed how serious the incidents at the school are. One Jewish student told the Globe it was harder to focus in school now. And her parent said she’s now nervous, particularly after the shooting of a Pittsburgh synagogue last month.
“Everybody is rethinking their safety and security,” said Rebecca Liberman. “I do believe there would be an out swell of opposition to this behavior if people were aware of it. But if you didn’t have kids in the schools, I’m not sure you would know.”
The school did voluntary small and large group discussions last week, where students discussed the impact of the vandalism and came up with their own list of ways to address the issue, which included small acts of kindness and checking in on peers, as well as having school administration call out these incidents as they happen.