Antisemitism and student support at the school board

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Jewish Equity Coach Brian Kom, provides an update on his work.

Brian Kom is just finishing up his first six months as the Jewish Equity Coach for the OCDSB. He never expected he would have to deal with a marked increase of antisemitism after the attacks on October 7, 2023, in Israel. 

Acknowledging that there is inequality for Jewish students in the OCDSB, the school board created the position and since October 7, it has proven invaluable. Brian has been working tirelessly for the benefit of Jewish students in local schools both at the administrative/community level and directly with teachers and principals in the schools. 

The Ottawa Jewish E-Bulletin had a chance to sit down with Kom and discuss what successes and challenges he has faced in his position and what support the community can expect from the OCDSB.

OJB: First off, let’s remember that until June 2023 there was no Jewish Equity Coach with the school board. Already knowing that there is someone whose main job is to support students and staff in combatting antisemitism is a huge relief. Thank you.

BK: I appreciate that, and at the same time, I know I’m not perfect and I’m open to critiques too. I will not shy away from hearing the tough stuff. I want to help.

OJB: Since October 7, there has been an increase of antisemitism in local schools. Parents are scared for their kids and are looking for answers. Some are starting grassroots groups like the Jewish Parents of Students Association (JPOSA), but many don’t feel supported, particularly noting that the upper tier of the administration seems to be supportive, but the messaging is not reaching the teachers in the classroom. Can you tell me what work you are doing to support students and classroom teachers during this time?

BK: I think both are true. The administration is incredibly supportive of Jewish students and more training is needed for teachers and principals who are dealing with this every day.

I think it's important that we acknowledge how hard it's been and continues to be to be Jewish anywhere, including in schools. There is work being done and we’re doing it so that Jewish students, families, and staff can feel safe, welcomed, respected, and included as they deserve to feel every day.

It is also worth crediting the Jewish community in the OCDSB. They have shown incredible courage and resilience to keep showing up, keep asking for what they need, and striving to hold us accountable and to make the OCDSB a safer and more equitable school board. 

There is a constant conversation around antisemitism and acknowledging that antisemitism is a problem in our Board. We are continually talking about what can be done and what we are going to do about it.

We are looking at the short-, medium- and long-term solutions and there are two main overarching things that the board has done to try and draw some clear lines around the expectations of staff and students. 

The first piece is the preexisting code of conduct that applies to both staff and students.  The second piece is the resources that are on the Board’s website that give direction on how to manage challenging conversations and situations. We need to make sure that all teachers are trained in these resources and know how to apply them. That is an ongoing effort, and we use professional development days to support this mission.

OJB: Would it be fair to say that you are not working alone? Are you partnering with the equity team?

BK: Yes, we have the full support of our team working for Jewish students. It’s an open and ongoing conversation in our team meetings and every member of the equity team has contributed in one way or another.

For example, there is a new initiative that I have been working on with Nabil Ahmed, a student success coordinator. We have been visiting elementary schools and discussing a student’s right to education, to feel safe, welcome, respected, and included in your classroom, in your school, and in your hallway. We discuss that it is a shared responsibility. Each student, teacher, and administrator have that responsibility. We also help them understand that their actions may have an unintended impact on others. How can we be more careful and responsible in considering those impacts so that our classmates, teachers, administrators, and everyone in our school community? These talks give us direct access to the students who need this the most and supports and models for teachers how to engage in these challenging conversations. 

Often, the kids will ask if we side with Palestine or side with Israel and it’s a chance to talk about how stressful it must be to feel like you need to pick a side. I can then explain how I feel when asked that question and how I feel like the world might depend on my answer. My friendships might depend on my answer. My answer might impact the entire rest of my school year. The pressures cause really big feelings, and this is a chance for the students to work through their complicated feelings. It is also an opportunity for students to reconsider the whole idea of “sides” by exploring and discussing all the ways our shared goals and values actually overlap.

OJB: That’s a great initiative, and I’m sure it’s making an impact, but when students are still coming home with reports of other students yelling at them in the halls, “Free Palestine” simply because they are Jewish, it’s hard to see the background work that’s going on. When students see fundraisers for Gaza and believe the money will not actually reach the intended recipients and therefore perceive the fundraiser as thinly veiled antisemitism. The first people students tell are their parents. So, how should parents feel about the situation?

BK: Fundraisers are initiated by students, and we try to empower them to take ownership of it and to promote causes they believe in. Every group has the same opportunity.  If Jewish students wanted to do a fundraiser for Magen David Adom, they would be supported to do so. That said, we understand that they aren’t doing Israel-orientated fundraisers for a number of reasons or concerns. This is part of the larger problem, and we are working on it.

For the parents, the Palestine-oriented fundraisers feel bad to the Jewish community, but we need to balance what feels bad with what IS bad. These are often elementary school students who are following their hearts and do not want to promote antisemitism. That said, the equity team can reach out to the school and say, “Hey, how can we support you to make sure that this is a constructive opportunity?” Part of that support is if the students have considered the unintended impact of their choice.  We try to encourage empathy and the understanding of how other students feel about their fundraiser.

OJB: What if a student is experiencing antisemitism on the public bus to school, or is targeted outside of school by classmates who know they are Jewish?

BK: Outside of the school grounds, it's more complicated. We may not have jurisdiction over their behaviour on the public bus or the mall. That said, they should come to a trusted teacher or administrator for help and support. 

If they are concerned about retribution for reporting, it’s still critical that they get support managing their feelings and personal safety even if they choose not to formally report. The conversation would be confidential and private. Also, it’s hard for the Board to act if we don’t know it’s happening.  By speaking to the administration, we can try to improve things through education and training without revealing any sensitive information. 

OJB: Given that teachers are seeing more antisemitism, what guidance is at the disposal of the teachers to help them know how to handle incidents of hate in school?

BK: The equity team undertook the creation of the Toolkit with protocols for handling hate. It’s taken at least a year to create, and it was released to the schools this school year. Jewish educators played an active role in its creation before my position existed, and I have been involved since.

It has guidelines for addressing antisemitism and all forms of hate and oppression. It defines what antisemitism is and what it looks like in schools. It gives specific examples and aims to bring clarity to the issue. If you don't know what antisemitism or Islamophobia or anti-Asian racism or anti-Black racism looks like we have a resource that you can easily read to learn more. 

There are also learning modules that provide the educational component for classes and individual students as needed. They are ready-made engagements for talking to students about antisemitism and other forms of hate and oppression. You learn about the history of oppression and why it's wrong. Here is the problem and here is a way you can deal with it through poetry, art, a story, or a video. Then the class can reflect on what they have learned.

In addition, we're constantly reviewing resources and vetting workshops to further support our staff on issues of hate and tolerance. Our team is presenting to staff on a regular basis, across the district. At this point all administrators, principals, and vice principals, have received some training on the Toolkit.  They've been asked to share it with their staff, so everyone should know how to use it.  When we hear about gaps, we address it, one school at a time. We’re a big district and a small team, but we try to make each day count. 

OJB: Are there other successes or updates that the community should know about?

BK: Yes. The Board had a successful Holocaust education professional development session on the new Holocaust curriculum expectations. It was run in partnership with the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES), the Azrieli Foundation, and Yad Vashem.  

Every school was asked to send a Grade 6 social studies teacher and then bring the learning back to their colleagues. It’s one way we've built capacity and while it’s not direct training on antisemitism, there's a connection between Holocaust education and decreased antisemitism.

Jewish voices are at the table for all the conversations about Jews when they occur at the Board. Nothing has been happening about us without us, so to speak. It's been my voice, family voices, teachers’ voices, and staff voices. I think that it’s important for the community to know that this is not performative. The Board is making a real commitment and has a real buy-in. 

I wish, obviously, that that result was different already. But it's a systemic issue, so we're working on it. 

Other examples are that representatives from the Board were invited to the U.S. Embassy to meet with Ambassador David L. Cohen, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, and Special Envoy Deborah Lyons. We attended a roundtable on antisemitism. In addition, we were at City Hall with Mayor Sutcliffe and Councillor Laura Dudas. 

Nabil and I went to the University of Ottawa to speak to new teacher candidates as part of a panel on facilitating challenging conversations in the classroom. It’s amazing that the Board is showing up alongside other civic leaders. We have not had seats at these tables before and it will make a huge difference over time. The Board is only invited because they created the Jewish Equity Coach position. I think it's amazing that the OCDSB is being considered an active partner and participant in these bigger and broader conversations. 

Outside influencers like Rabbi Menachem Blum and Dr. Aisha Shirazi, are booked weekly in schools throughout the district through the rest of the school year. In addition, we have upcoming workshops from the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Foundation for Genocide Education, talks from Dr. Eva Olsen and more to come. 

OJB: In conclusion, could you definitively state that there has been a positive Board change that may not have occurred prior to having the Jewish Equity Coach position?

BK: Yes. When there was a pro-Palestine walkout, the principal of the school was incredibly active and involved in educating and facilitating communication, not about the walkout, but around supporting the Jewish students and staff. He recognized the impact the walkout would have on them because of the work of the equity department.  Real educational and empathetic gains came out of his efforts. It created new opportunities for dialogue and connection. Having an active and engaged teacher/staff facilitator makes all the difference. 

In another school I was able to connect the students with the Human Rights and Equity Advisor and the students were surprised to learn that everything they were hearing about the war wasn’t true and the conversation changed their misconceptions. They really learned how their actions were impacting students from other backgrounds and we had a wonderful learning journey.

Things may not be perfect, but having someone who can advocate for the needs of the Jewish community from within the Board has already had a huge impact on how the current rise in antisemitism has been managed. In the future, I believe we will see a more open and accepting OCDSB community.