A mother’s grief, a son’s torment

May 31, 2020 by Henry Benjamin
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The bullying started in February last year. The 12-yr-old’s tormentors did not know he was Jewish. But on March 16 they did know and the bullying escalated to a level which brought shocks of horror from around the world when a photograph of the victim forced to his knees and kissing a foot of a fellow student hit the headlines.

Photo: Twitter

The student was a Muslim.

After the shoe kissing incident became public, the mother and son were allegedly stalked and threatened by another student.

This week, the grief-stricken mother of the Jewish boy told her story to an Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections hosted on Zoom by the Victorian State Parliament. A Victorian MP sitting on the committee broke down in tears after hearing the mother’s evidence.

At the outset, the single mother of three stated: “It’s been over 14 months  since my son’s religious and  racial vilification began at Cheltenham Secondary, 10 months since it ended and was reported, 8 months since my son was school relocated, 7 months since the media covered the story making national  and international headlines and we suffered a shockwave of anti-Semitism for releasing my son’s experience, 6 months since we sat with James Merlino [Victoria’s Minister for Education and Deputy Premier] and his department and participated in an education department inquiry, 5 months since we last heard from  the Department of Education directing us to the Independent office for school dispute resolution  due to continued outstanding concerns, 4 months since the conclusion of working with the independent office resulting in nothing new from what had been resolved from the investigation performed by the education department, 3 months since Parliament question time asking James Merlino for the investigation report to be released to the parents and a last court attendance in a continuing court process for the 2nd Cheltenham secondary student hopeful of being concluded next week relating to several indictable charges of threatening to kill, harassment and stalking at Moorabbin Children’s court.

The outcome for us in real terms – nothing.”

The mother told the inquiry she had not received an apology and had no-one hade been made accountable. The shoe kissing incident happened outside of the school’s property. Although the student whose shoe was kissed was a Muslim, the mother told the inquiry that the instigators were “white supremacist children”.

She continued: “The initial incident was partly resolved between the family of the Muslim boy and us, understanding the schools wouldn’t get involved and the police couldn’t get involved it had to be parent to parent. When approaching the mother of the instigator of the white supremacist boys and introducing myself I was told ‘fuck off you Jewish dog!”

Months of meetings with the school resulted in no outcomes for my son – everything was deemed an isolated incident to avoid the school having to admit they had problems on their hands with hate/bullying issues.  

The consistent message was for my son to become more resilient and to have better coping mechanisms.”

In the Zoomed inquiry, the mother showed great strength but frustration and emotion appeared when she told the Inquiry: “When the Adam Goodes story broke, my son was then called the Jewish ape, the Jewish nigger, Jewish gimp. In the lead up to my son’s final assault, I contacted the school several times in the preceding 7 days knowing that something was brewing – no one could do anything to help until something happened and it did. ”

On July 2, the 12-yr-old boy was beaten up by his tormentors.

The Inquiry was told he had been called “a cooked up Jewish c**t  but that apparently it couldn’t be considered a hate crime. 

The outcome was a 5-day suspension for the instigator and a legal caution by the police.

She continued: “What was the outcome for my son – further threats that weren’t contained, an emergency exit from the school and six weeks of being schoolless.  When I wasn’t able to be home with my son during the schoolless period and couldn’t contact him, I would race home thinking he had taken his own life.”

When her son finally left Cheltenham Secondary, the mother said no-one said a word when she collected her son’s books and left the school for the last time.

The mother finally reached out for help.  “It had been the loneliest and scariest six months of my life.  The Anti-Defamation Commission was instrumental in getting my son relocated and bringing justice to light via media.

The school’s response was disgusting.  Its response was so focused on shifting the blame to the victim that it instigated a situation where a student in year 10 was later arrested on seven indictable criminal charges for threatening to kill, harassment and stalking – but the vocabulary used yet again wasn’t deemed a hate crime.  ‘Jewish bitch, Jewish c***t and  Jewish dog – the case concludes next week in the children’s court and at this stage because he is a youth offender he probably won’t receive anything more than participating in a deterrence program.”

In answering questions from the Inquiry, the mother recalled a Jewish teacher at Cheltenham who heard antisemitic remarks made in the classroom and ushered her son to the front of the class “and swept the incident under carpet”.  The mother also stated a Jewish psychologist who was sent to her by the Education Department after her son was beaten up recommended her son should use Hebrew to swear at his tormentors.

The mother believes the teacher was protecting the school and the psychologist protecting the Education Department.

She told the Inquiry that a report prepared for the Education Department was redacted because of sensitive information. She said: “Where is my privacy?  Where is my son’s privacy?”

The mother told the Inquiry the Department of Education would not move without the corroboration of evidence.

Committee member Liberal State MP James Newbury broke down when responding to the mother’s testimony. He said: “One thing the committee can do is bring about change at law in the types of behaviour we allow in our community. We also need to assure our institutions and bureaucracy match and enforce those laws and principles. No single member of this committee can recommend changes at law. I know I will, and there are other people who will too and never stop making sure the bureaucracy the and [he breaks down]

Professor Suzanne Rutland sat on the inquiry showing a PowerPoint presentation “Anti-religious attitudes in the Schoolyard: Combatting Racial Prejudice Early On “.

This is part of the research she carried out with Professor Zehavit Gross of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Together they produced a paper “Creating a safe place: SRE teaching as an act of security and identity formation in government schools in Australia” for the British Journal of Religious Education.

Having listened to the mother’s testimony, Professor Suzanne Rutland told J-Wire: “I believe the mother demonstrated enormous courage in pursuing this issue. The research which I have undertaken with Professor Zehavit Gross into antisemitic incidents in government schools reveal that most incidents of this nature go unreported, either because the students do not tell their parents because they are afraid that their parents will report the incident and make the situation worse, or because parents are concerned with the ramifications of action and simply move their child to another school where the dynamics are different.

Hence the mother’s willingness to pursue this issue both in the courts and in her powerful and emotional testimony to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry demonstrated great bravery on her part. Her evidence will assist children of all faiths who experience religious bullying in government schools on the school’s premises or outside them.

For legal action to be effective the Victorian government needs to introduce legislation similar to the NSW Safe Schools legislation, but it needs to have stronger teeth to ensure that perpetrators can be punished.”

J-Wire asked Professor Rutland what educators can do. She responded: “All educators need to understand the issue of religious and racial bullying and not brush such accusations off with a generic statement that there is a general problem of bullying, perhaps implying that it is the victim’s fault, or denial of the problem. To create this awareness, there needs to be professional development both for classroom teachers to act when they see incidences and not just move on as if nothing has happened and also for principals so that they can know how to respond. As well, my colleague and myself argue that in addition to Holocaust education, which clearly is very important, there needs to be two levels of religious education: General Religious Education (GRE), about religions, which can create an understanding of the different religions and their practices, and Special Religious Education/Instruction (GRE/RI), which is in-faith education so that students can be grounded in their own identity and have a “safe place” to learn about and discuss their own religious identity with other students of their own faith.”

She added: “Even though it is challenging, I do think it is important for families to speak up because otherwise, the problem will continue to be swept under the table. I hope, after the mother’s experiences, immediate support will be available to such families, rather than the culture of denial that has prevailed until now.”

The son is now happily attending his new school.

Also on the committee was Liberal MP, David Southwick.

The chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission was asked for a comment.

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