We all want our kids to be good people — kind, principled, fair-minded citizens who treat others with dignity and respect.
But who is responsible for instilling those values in them?
Parents, certainly. The community at large. Leaders from a variety of fields.
We also decided a long time ago that schools should carry a good deal of that weight.
It’s accepted thinking that schools should teach students not just the difference between an acute and an obtuse angle, or what the War of 1812 was really about. We have agreed as a society that educators must also work to build character and promote ethical behavior among their students.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
This core concept is so ingrained in our expectations that it’s actually part of California’s Education Code, which states that teachers should “impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism,” and “the meaning of equality and human dignity.” School district policies spell out similar responsibilities.
By extension, when things go terribly wrong — as they did when some local high school students gave a Nazi salute to plastic cups arranged into the shape of a swastika at an off-campus party in March — public reaction includes apportioning a large share of the blame to schools. That holds true even when the egregious behavior occurs off campus.
This is a fair, if sometimes overstated, critique. Schools do generally promote qualities associated with good character, and they do include lessons about the Holocaust. But the disturbing swastika incident revealed serious shortcomings to the approach taken so far, and served as a giant wake-up call that we must not become complacent, that far more must be done.
Indeed, recent events have illustrated what many of us already knew to be true — that the deeply offensive behavior of the students at the party was not an isolated occurrence.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that the U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism last year, including a horrific attack that killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and a surge in white supremacist propaganda throughout the nation.
The trend has continued into this year, most tragically with yet another synagogue shooting, in Poway, that left one dead. The ADL has also identified several recent incidences of anti-Semitic behavior and messaging at schools in Orange County.
I recently spoke with Newport-Mesa Unified officials about these issues and how the district can address the rise in acts of hate going forward.
One key theme that emerged in our discussion is that schools need parents to be active, vigilant partners in fostering ethical behavior and in warding off unhealthy influences.
Hate speech and intolerant attitudes are so prevalent online these days that kids are often exposed to virulent messaging without their parents knowledge, noted Sean Boulton, principal at Newport Harbor High School, where many of the students involved in the recent swastika incident attend.
“From a school perspective, we’re doing our part in trying to inform our students that anti-Semitism and bigotry is flat-out wrong,” Boulton said. “What we’ve realized is a missing component. Parents need to have that conversation with their kids. Parents need to be monitoring their kids’ social media accounts.
“This incident has taught me there’s more good than evil in our community. The problem is there’s a lot going on out there. You have to have that hard conversation with your own kid. Hate, bigotry, anti-Semitism — talk to them about why it’s wrong.”
In addition, specific steps that Newport Harbor and other district schools are planning include: organizing a trip for students and staff to the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles; sending teachers to anti-bias training; sending student representatives to ADL leadership training; on-campus anti-bias training by the ADL; and other campus-wide and classroom projects intended to promote kindness and ethical behavior.
Kirk Bauermeister, Newport-Mesa’s executive director of secondary education, also noted that the district has formed a Human Relations Task Force to make recommendations, and he urged parents and other community members to come to the meetings and become involved.
The task force will look into “how do we create safe and inclusive schools, and how do we teach kindness to our kids? Where are the gaps? What can we do better?” Bauermeister said.
A schedule of task force meetings and workshops can be found on the district’s website, and I urge everyone to become active participants. I plan on attending when possible, even though I no longer have students in the district.
There’s no doubt that schools must play a vital role in shaping our youth into upstanding citizens who embrace tolerance and denounce hate and bigotry.
But in order to succeed in this mission, we must all work together, looking not for where to assign blame but for ways to cooperate going forward in order to instill our most cherished values in our children.
Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.