In the aftermath of this spring’s controversial Holocaust essay assignment, Rialto Unified School District managers met this week to discuss how intolerance and hatred has led to genocides around the world.
“We look broadly at the concept of dehumanization and its stereotypes,” said Jeffrey Demsky, a Holocaust expert with San Bernardino Valley College.
He presented the program at Rialto High on Thursday afternoon to about 150 school district employees, he said.
Demsky is part of Rialto Unified’s new Cultural Diversity Committee, which is working to undo the damage done by last spring’s assignment.
The goal Thursday was “to help the Rialto management staff understand the way that dehumanization is an active and social phenomenon that … requires awareness and vigilance,” he said afterward. “Hopefully, it’ll trickle down to their faculty and those who they manage.”
Although the presentation was in response to Holocaust denial material being distributed to students, the “Stepping Stones to Genocide” presentation also covered anti-Asian stereotypes of the 19th century and how they led to the U.S. internment camps and other prejudice against the Japanese during World War II and the various dehumanizing myths and imagery used to depict African-Americans as less than human.
Demsky said racist messages can have long-lasting impacts on those who are exposed to them in a neutral or positive light as children.
“The children, whether they realize it or not, when they see a sign or an establishment that says ‘no blacks, no Mexicans, no dogs’ … the residue is embedded in their mental wiring,” he said.
Last spring’s assignment asked the district’s 2,000 eighth-graders whether or not the Holocaust actually occurred. Developed by a small group of Rialto Unified English teachers, the three-day in-class assignment gave students a trio of printouts from what were described as “credible sources” in the assignment: About.com, History.com and an Australian Holocaust denial website.
Dozens of students ended up declaring the Holocaust to be a hoax, including some who used vehement language to decry Israel.
Historians estimate 6 million Jews, or about two of every three in Europe, were killed by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
At its meeting last week, the committee rolled out a plan to re-educate last year’s eighth-graders on the reality of the Holocaust and train district staff to prevent a similar mistake from happening again.
In addition to Thursday’s “Stepping Stone to Genocide” presentation, next week the district intends to have sensitivity training for principals and counselors about bridging cultural and generational gaps.
In September, the district will roll out a new lesson plan Demsky helped develop for the now ninth-grade students centered around the autobiographical novel “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, followed by a public lecture on how to properly teach the Holocaust.
Ninth-graders will present their “Night” essays during a December school board meeting.
Finally, in March, the district will hold a meeting to publicly document what it’s done in the year since the news of the Holocaust assignment first broke online.
After initially downplaying the assignment, district officials apologized for it, saying it would not be repeated, and sent district eighth-graders to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Demsky, who said he grew up near a Nazi summer camp in Long Island, hopes Thursday’s presentation — and those to come over the next few weeks — will help Rialto Unified officials avoid future incidents.
This week, news broke that Redlands East Valley High School cheerleaders dressed up as gangsters, some of them “pregnant” with balloons under their shirts, for a “team-building” exercise. Team members then posted the images on social media.
“If that proposition was forwarded to a Rialto cheerleading coach, they’d hopefully say ‘no, that’s dehumanizing,’” Demsky said. “Dehumanization is a very insidious thing because over time those being dehumanized come to accept that judgment.”
Community members in both Rialto and Redlands have to take these issues seriously, he said.
“We, as members of the human race, as members of the civic society, have a responsibility to fight this,” Demsky said.