Letter to the Editor: Don't punish the ignorant, educate them instead

The Newtonite

Dear Editor,
I went to a meeting [last week] at town hall to discuss moving forward from the recent incidents of racism and anti-semitism around Newton (and about how to deal with prejudice and hate in a broader sense, including homophobia, sexism, etc.). There were a dozen speakers, all of whom said productive things, including how we cannot see ourselves as above the problem in order to solve it, lest we become part of that problem by assuming that we are somehow perfect and without bias.
I was thrilled. Everyone had good suggestions, relevant anecdotes, and were approaching the problems with appropriate shares of solemnity and optimism. I was sitting with several other students, all of whom I have heard speak before and I knew to have useful contributions to the discussion.
But then, the floor was opened to questions from the community. They went on to say that they couldn’t understand this. That they thought that the tone being used by those who spoke was somehow inappropriate, that preaching tolerance and education was the wrong way to go about doing things. One person said that she had no sympathy for the people who were saying anti-semitic things, that they should be punished rather than educated. She justified this by saying her family were Holocaust survivors. My paternal grandparents came to this country from Poland, Romania, and Russia, to escape persecution. They were Jews, and the four or so of them made it out alive, but never heard from any of their family members again. My family tree stops with them because there is nothing left of the people who came before them. I have every sympathy for those who have experienced similar things. But using that experience to justify your own ignorance is abhorrent.
The bulk of the people committing these hate crimes are children. Middle and high schoolers. Almost none of them legal adults, none of them with brains finished developing, none of them done learning yet. But no, these children should be punished, not educated. Yes, I can see the merit in discipline for acting as they have. But to only deal out hatred to these kids will do nothing, save make them bitter, and perhaps only encourage them to perpetuate these acts of hate. There is still room for them to grow! There is still time to teach them WHY what they did is wrong, and how it can affect others. I’ve done stupid things. But when I have, my parents and teachers have done their best to tell me why it was stupid, and how to avoid being stupid in the future. And I learned from that; I grew rather than resented them, like I would have if I’d just been reprimanded and sent away like a child should have known better.
And even aside from that, you are not the only ones suffering! There is so much more than just hatred against Jews; black people, LGBTQ+ people, those who suffer from mental illness, we’re suffering too. But many of us have learned that positive change, in a community that is willing to cooperate and take those steps, is achieved through compromise, education, and understanding. When you fight this hatred with more hatred, YOU are the problem. You think that because you have been persecuted, and you have been victimized, that you are above tolerance and education. Your own painful experiences do not justify this kind of behavior.
At North, there have been several meetings with students and staff to talk about these issues. I have attended all of them so far, and will continue to do so to the best of my ability. But what I have seen there so far is a group of people who have acknowledged a number of problems, and rather than seek some kind of retribution, we have sought out productive and positive changes to make to the way our school operates, teaches, and supports its students. Rather than vilify our peers, we tried to think about how to educate them. We have chosen to combat stigma and prejudice as ways of thinking rather than the people themselves.
When a group of teenagers are more thoughtful, more kind, more articulate, and more forgiving than you are in all your bitterness and ignorance and stubbornness, perhaps it’s time to step back and reflect.
-Elise Miller, junior