Riverhead Central School District officials have opened an investigation this week into swastikas drawn on desks in a Riverhead High School classroom.
A teacher at the high school informed high school administration of the symbols Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said in a letter to the community dated Sept. 22 and posted on the district website.
High school principal Sean O’Hara has interviewed the students known to sit at the desks, the letter states, and the parents of those students have been notified and spoken to.
School officials did not say whether the symbols, which have been used to harass Jewish people and other minority groups, were targeted at any specific person or people. They also did not say how many swastikas were found and how many desks were marked with them.
“It goes without saying that this behavior is reprehensible and has no place in our community,” Tornatore wrote in the letter.
“The District has strict policies and has zero tolerance for any behavior, whether verbal, physical or in any form, that is derogatory, abusive, racist or in any way defamatory. Following a thorough investigation, appropriate disciplinary action, if warranted, will be taken.”
Tornatore said O’Hara has reached out to the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, a museum in Nassau County, for “resources and support.”
The superintendent did not say whether the district reported the incident to Riverhead Town Police. Police Chief David Hegermiller was unaware of the incident his morning and said he is checking into whether the police department was notified.
“When any additional information that can be shared becomes available, we will provide the community with an update,” Tornatore said.
The district is already dealing with a bias incident that occurred at a Riverhead Blue Waves varsity football home game Sept. 9. Young children were attacked and called the N-word by Riverhead High School and middle school students and a former student, according to family members of the children and at least one school board member who said she witnessed the incident.
The parents and grandparents of the children took their complaints to the Riverhead Town Anti-Bias Task Force on Monday.
The new chairperson of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force said in a phone interview today the task force had not yet been notified of the swastika incident publicly reported by the district yesterday.
“We look forward to a conversation with [the district] regarding these current incidents,” Riverhead ABTF Chairperson Mark McLaughlin said. It’s very important to involve the town’s anti-bias task force, he said. Working to prevent these incidents is at the heart of the ABTF’s mission, McLaughlin said.
“The Riverhead school district has a valuable organization right here in the heart of Riverhead, a multicultural town,” he said. “We have multicultural members and we look forward to spreading that voice of unity,” he said.
“We would like to be on speed dial as far as the school district is concerned on something like that,” McLaughlin said.
“It’s very unfortunate that we are experiencing this in Riverhead, and in 2023,” he said. “It was brought up at our last meeting that anti-Semitic issues are flaming up and we don’t want those flames in Riverhead,” he said. “We have to work together to put them out.”
“Obviously, we have a lot, a lot of work to do, to make sure that incidents like this never happen again,” McLaughin said.
The swastika is a hooked-cross symbol that was used on the flag of the German Nazi party, which later became the flag of Germany itself, before and during World War II. Since World War II, the symbol has become one of hate used by white supremecists and neo-Nazis, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Before being appropriated by the Nazi party, the swastika was an ancient symbol that came to mean good luck, and is still a sacred symbol in certain eastern religions, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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