After swastika incidents, Steamboat community asks school district to do more

Community members, including local students, are asking the school district to do more in the wake of a recent spate of hateful graffiti found near Steamboat Springs High School and on the school campus in recent weeks.

“What weighs on my heart the most is hearing my club members from the Jewish community talk about the fear they feel and the physical reactions they experience when hearing about and seeing hateful symbols that are being drawn with increasing frequency,” Sloane Speer, a junior at SSHS and president of the Students for Social Justice Club, told the Board of Education on Tuesday evening. “We have a long way to go, and things need to change to get there.”

Last week, the Steamboat Pilot & Today reported on the police investigation into a high school student accused of burning a swastika into a bench at Memorial Park, which is adjacent to the high school, in late August. Steamboat Springs Police Chief Mark Beckett subsequently reported a string of additional incidents, including the discovery of graffiti depicting a swastika along with the name of a high school teacher and the teacher’s phone number, as well as a swastika etched in dirt on a student’s car parked at the school.

The district attorney declined to bring charges in the Memorial Park bench case based on a lack of admissible evidence. The other incidents remain under investigation.

Steamboat Springs Superintendent Celine Wicks said the school district “strongly condemns all antisemitic statements and expressions.” Wicks said that a schoolwide assembly would be held at the high school for students “to learn how to combat antisemitism, harassment and bullying.”

Wicks said the response to the incidents should be communitywide and not rest “solely on the shoulders of schools and school employees.” Wicks outlined elementary, middle and high school programs designed to engage students on tolerance and community-building topics and pushed back on criticism that the school district has not done enough.

“For anyone to say that (the school district) is not supporting any group or is not doing enough to support children, that is simply a gross understatement,” the superintendent said.

Addressing Wicks and the school board at the Tuesday night meeting, members of the community agreed the response to hate-related incidents should be communitywide. But in referencing past incidents and personal experiences, they pushed for the school district to do more.

During the public comment period, former Board of Education member and President Kelly Latterman recalled a message she received during a discussion of mask mandates during the pandemic in 2020.

“The Holocaust failed because your family didn’t die, and you are here to ruin my kid’s life,” the message read. She said the message was similar to others she received during her tenure on the board.

“It’s been two-and-a-half years since I received that message while I sat in your seats serving as president of the school board,” Latterman said. “This really isn’t about the high school, it’s very much part of a larger conversation in the community that needs to keep going. It’s not new. Maybe the openness is for some.”

Steamboat Springs senior Sophie Flam told the board about the time in her sophomore history class when, during a lesson on the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, a fellow student sitting next to her grabbed her worksheet and drew a swastika on it.

“I didn’t even know how to act,” Flam said. “I sat through the rest of class and went through my day.”

Flam said it happened again recently as she sat in a math class, adding, “the feeling I got was much worse than before.”

“I felt a real primal fear. The kind where your stomach drops and all you want to do is run,” she said. “I went to the bathroom and cried.”

Cindy Ruzicka, a teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School and member of Har Mishpacha, the city’s Jewish congregation, recalled an incident seven years ago when one of her two children found swastikas drawn on one of her high school projects.

“Like me, she was not surprised this was happening again,” she said of her daughter’s reaction to the recent incidents. “As a school district, we need to recognize antisemitism as the problem and have it addressed by name, not veiled under an umbrella diversity program.”

In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League reported 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. — a 36% increase from the year prior and the highest number of recorded instances of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault since the group began tracking the data in 1979.

“This is a longstanding problem and right now in our country it is on the rise,” local resident Clark Davidson told the Board of Education on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, it has fallen more in your laps today.”

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