Swastika found in Atlanta fifth-grade classroom: When hate goes to school

A parent at Mary Lin, one of the Atlanta's highest-performing schools, posted a note on Facebook about a Jewish teacher discovering a drawing of a swastika in her classroom last week. Her comments generated social media discussion of how this vile symbol of hate made its way to a fifth grade classroom and what is the appropriate response of parents and APS.

Unfortunately, children -- even 10-year-olds -- have been seeing a lot of swastikas lately because of the violent neo Nazi rally in Charlottesville. As the reporter for a Vice news documentary who embedded with the white nationalists noted, the focus of the march was not protecting Confederate history or memorials, as some defenders insist.

"Once they started marching, they didn't talk about Robert E. Lee being a brilliant military tactician. They chanted about Jews. Like, they wanted to be menacing. It's not an accident," said Ellie Reeve on th CBS news show, "Face the Nation."

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was aware of the incident. In talking to her about it Tuesday night for about 45 minutes, she praised the teacher’s response, saying she turned it into a teachable moment.

“The teacher did a great job; she didn’t overreact or ignore it. Perhaps, it was a reset for a student. Just because you go to a nice school in a nice neighborhood doesn't mean everyone in the neighborhood fully embraces diversity like you and I might. You just don't know," said Carstarphen.

It is likely, said the superintendent, the child saw a swastika on TV or in the newspaper since the images have been common in the last few weeks. “They are watching TV and seeing stacks of newspapers, and seeing these images, and not fully understanding what they mean. I don’t think it was malicious; kids in fifth grade don’t fully understand some of these things. Great teachers can take something like this and make it a teachable moment.”

Here is the Facebook post that initiated so much discussion:

I can't stop thinking about this.

We live in Atlanta and love our public school and our community. Her teacher turned it into a teaching moment as great teachers do, but I am heartbroken. My daughter decided to pick flowers from our struggling little garden to take to her teacher today. I know individual acts of kindness are good and that love is bigger than hate, but I am searching for a way to make a positive impact that is meaningful. Desperate for a solution that is a big enough answer for the many problems at hand.

Raising a child to be kind and loving is certainly a big response, but I'm restless. In the last few months we've had a lot of big conversations at our house: the birds and the bees, girls before boys, my daughter being asked out on a date by another 10-year-old girl, but I really didn't see the swastika on the planter coming. We talk openly about world events with my daughter but a swastika used as a symbol of fear and hate as no place in a 5th grade classroom.

The incident at Mary Lin provides a learning experience for students, who, coincidentally, are now in the midst of "No Place for Hate" week at their school.  The elementary school student who drew the swastika likely did so out of ignorance, not hate.

Either way, it merits correction.

I have faith that 10-year-olds will be open to what the school tries to teach them about the potency of symbols and the danger of following blindly. Legendary AJC journalist Celestine Sibley wrote a famous column that there is no better human being than a 10-year-old boy; I would extend her observations to 10-year-olds in general. They are curious, open and not yet jaded.

Hate is a learned behavior. It can be unlearned as well.