Students have long scrawled their thoughts on bathroom walls at school, but recent graffiti in Montgomery County — including swastikas and racial insults — have left many educators grappling with a troubling rise in acts of hateful vandalism.
Police say eight such incidents were reported in county schools during a one-month span this fall, compared with six in all of 2015. The vandalism, much of it in school bathrooms, has alarmed parents and students and has sparked discussions at community meetings.
The most recent incident came Thursday afternoon at Woodlin Elementary School in Silver Spring, where the principal said in a letter that a “derogatory, racial statement” was found written on the wall in a bathroom near third-grade classrooms.
Superintendent Jack Smith has called the incidents unlawful, a violation of school policy and “simply wrong.” He has said offenders will be disciplined to the fullest extent possible, and he has asked principals to write to families encouraging students to report any vandalism, offensive messages or harassment.
But amid continuing concern, some are calling for more action in Maryland’s largest school system, noting that some of the incidents involve students as young as elementary schoolers. Police have said they have no information that any of the acts are connected.
“Clearly there is a dramatic increase in hate-inspired vandalism in Montgomery County schools,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “The school system needs to go on the offensive to create a culture of zero tolerance for this type of activity by educating our county’s student population.”
The school vandalism is part of a broader increase in alleged hate crimes, which Montgomery police say have climbed nearly 23 percent across the community this year so far, compared with the same time frame last year.
The uptick follows a vitriolic presidential campaign that many elected leaders and advocates say has emboldened people with racist or anti-Semitic views to express themselves more boldly, and in public.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a report documenting nearly 900 “hate incidents” nationally in the 10 days after the presidential election on Nov. 8. President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team released a statement saying that Trump denounces racism of any kind and vows to be a leader for every American.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh last month set up a hotline for people to report hate crimes, citing an increase in reports of incidents targeting Jews, women, immigrants and the LGBT community. The hotline received 25 calls between Nov. 17 and Dec. 5 according to Frosh’s office, and some will be referred to police for investigation. The hotline number is 1-866-481-8361.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s office has received about 1,000 emails or phone calls from people asking him to publicly condemn the increase in hate-based incidents since the election, officials said. Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor “does not want to see hate on any side of the issue.”
Hundreds of Montgomery residents converged for a rally Nov. 20 to affirm the county’s identity as a place that welcomes diversity and shows respect for all. The event came a week after the predominantly Latino congregants of a Silver Spring church discovered graffiti saying “Trump Nation” and “Whites Only” as they arrived for services.
As Montgomery has seen an increase in hate incidents, police also have investigated community vandalism against perceived Trump supporters.
A Silver Spring resident whose Trump yard sign was stolen later discovered a large swastika painted on his front door, and three cars in a Burtonsville driveway were spray-painted with swastikas, the word “racist” and other derogatory phrases in what appeared to have been a bias incident against a perceived Trump supporter, police said.
Authorities also have been looking into numerous school incidents in recent weeks.
At Beall Elementary in Rockville, students discovered a swastika on a bathroom wall Nov. 29, and after it was cleaned away, someone wrote graffiti again, this time using a racial epithet about a building services worker.
The same day, a visitor found a swastika in a bathroom at Quince Orchard High School; a swastika image was burned into that school’s football field in October.
In recent weeks, two swastikas were found drawn on a table in the media center at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, county police said. And a student found graffiti in a girls’ bathroom at Belmont Elementary in Olney that said, “Brown people suck,” according to school district officials.
Byron Johns, education committee chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, said that many in Montgomery find such acts hard to fathom in a place they view as a bastion of liberalism. But reality has always been more complex, he said, and students are reflecting what they hear and see in the wider world.
“A lot of voices that have been in the shadows are coming out of the shadows,” he said.
The superintendent’s message has been helpful, Johns said, but it has to be “carried forward” in each of the county’s 204 schools. “You can’t allow these acts of aggression to create a hostile learning environment for the most vulnerable kids,” he said.
Some schools have reeled after the offenses.
Parents, students and teachers at Westland Middle were “angry, scared, upset and shocked” after a boys’ bathroom was defaced with swastikas on Nov. 11, said Cathy Stocker, the PTA president. But as the community struggled, she said, students and others spoke out forcefully at a candlelight vigil, saying that the hatred does not reflect their school.
“It felt very healing,” she said. “Our primary goal was to make sure all students and families felt safe and welcomed and to articulate that this incident did not reflect our values as a community.”
Many students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac did not know about an incident involving a “whites-only” sign that was taped to a bathroom door until they read a news account, said Hana Mangat, 16, junior class president. Students want to be informed, she said.
“I think not talking about hate crimes and racism is extremely dangerous because pretending the problem doesn’t exist does not make it go away,” the 11th-grader said.
In the Churchill case, two offenders were identified through surveillance video, and school officials said they took disciplinary action.
In a number of other instances, those responsible have not yet been identified.
“In so many of these cases it’s been done at night or away from any cameras or witnesses,” said Captain Paul Starks, of the Montgomery County Police Department.
Some student offenders might be rebelling, acting out or looking for attention, not fully aware of the harm, while others might harbor racist or anti-Semitic views, said Halber, of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He urged punishment and education, particularly for those driven by hate, as a deterrent to future acts and potential violence.
At recent community meetings, the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, interfaith community liaison in Montgomery County, said the issue of school incidents comes up all the time, but often involves verbal remarks, with parents saying their children have told them stories of others saying they could be deported or should leave the country.
“It is very clear to me there are many more than are being reported,” he said.
LaVerne Kimball, associate superintendent of elementary schools, said the district makes many efforts to teach students to be “good citizens and great human beings,” using morning announcements, counseling lessons and study circles, to name a few. She said any incident is one too many, and the recent string is disheartening.
“That’s the antithesis of our values,” she said.
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.