For the second time this year, Hellgate High School is investigating a hate speech incident after a student discovered anti-Semitic graffiti on Monday.
The student reported finding a swastika carved into the back of a paper towel dispenser in a school bathroom Monday, the first day that students were back after a weeklong spring break.
Principal Judson Miller said the graffiti did not convey a specific safety threat, although he acknowledged that it “absolutely makes people feel unsafe.”
Miller said the school took immediate action following the report by taking a picture, removing the etching and notifying law enforcement. Missoula County Public Schools spokeswoman Hatton Littman said the school also sent an email to parents.
The school does not have any leads on suspects yet but is conducting an internal investigation, reviewing camera footage and interviewing students.
Miller said he plans to use the incident as a teaching opportunity and hopes that students can rally around Hellgate’s identity as “a school that celebrates diversity, a school that’s welcoming, a school that absolutely condemns hateful activity.”
“We have a lot of amazing students and student groups in our building,” Miller said. “This does not represent our student body, so our students are upset.”
Hellgate sophomore Gillian Sherrill said she generally thinks of Missoula as having an accepting environment. “The fact that anyone would think to project any sort of hateful message to any group is horrific,” she said.
“Especially in recent years under the political circumstances that allow anti-Semitism, racism and hate to prosper, it shows the work that is yet to be done as a school, city and country to dispel any hateful sentiment," she said.
The graffiti at Hellgate highlights the increasing number of hate crimes that are being reported across the nation.
More than 10 percent of the 7,175 hate-bias incidents reported by law enforcement in 2017 occurred at schools and universities, about a 25 percent increase from 2016 and the second year in a row that such incidents spiked by roughly a quarter at educational institutions, according to data from the FBI.
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According to the data, hate crimes occurred more often at schools in 2017 than at jails, places of worship, doctor’s offices, government buildings or commercial offices.
Many schools, including Hellgate are emphasizing the seriousness of such incidents and imposing strict consequences on students who commit such acts.
At Hellgate, Miller said that any student who engages in hate speech, hate drawings or hateful behavior would receive an out-of-school suspension. The student and their parents would also be required to meet with administrators before they would be allowed to re-enter the school.
The student could also face criminal charges.
Miller said he reported Monday’s incident to the Hellgate resource officer, Jim Johnson.
Missoula Police Sgt. and Public Information Officer Travis Welsh said there has not been an official report made to law enforcement, although he said Johnson is aware of the incident. Welsh said various charges such as criminal mischief could come out of a report, depending on where the swastika was found.
The timing of the discovery, which coincides with students’ return from spring break, could complicate investigations because although school was out of session for a week, the building was still rented and used by various community groups.
Miller said it’s also possible that it was overlooked because “it was rather small and it was in a kind of inconspicuous location.”
While the school continues to investigate the incident, Miller said he will be meeting with teachers to discuss how they can better address hateful speech and behaviors.
He said he has already met with a rabbi, members of the local Jewish community, school staff, the district office, law enforcement, attorneys, leaders of student government and other community members.
Additionally, he plans to work with student leaders and staff advisors from various clubs and activities.