DEVELOPMENTS relating to allegations of antisemitic abuse at Brighton Secondary College have taken a new twist, with news that five Jewish ex-students have now begun legal action against the Victorian government over their treatment at the school.
The news comes as the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) revealed details of a professional learning program and a bystander training program it has launched at Brighton Secondary College to assist teachers with issues of antisemitism.
In 2020, The AJN reported exclusively about antisemitic conduct towards Jewish pupils at Brighton Secondary College. The Victorian Department of Education later launched an investigation, which resulted in a 124-page report that included 18 recommendations to reform reporting and monitoring policies at the school, and other measures for handling antisemitic and racist behaviour in Victorian schools.
Federal Court documents indicate the five ex-students have alleged the school tolerated an antisemitic culture that robbed them of their right to be educated in safety.
The court has suppressed the names of the five plaintiffs, among 20 students involved in the legal action.
In court documents, four of the plaintiffs stated they left Brighton Secondary College early to avoid a continued barrage of racist abuse they suffered between 2013 and 2020. They have alleged the school failed on multiple occasions to act appropriately to quell the behaviour.
A boy who wore a kippah frequently had it pulled off his head, the statement claimed, and frequent taunts of “Jewboy”, “skullboy”, “Heil Hitler” and “burn in the oven” were levelled at the students.
A statement of claim revealed one ex-pupil describing the school environment as a “prison culture” and reporting mistreatment to teachers only increased the severity of abuse from other students. The pupil said after he reported a knife assault on him to teachers, the incident was not probed by the school authorities. Claiming he was “too scared” to remain at the school, the boy later transferred to a Jewish school.
The students also claimed that the school’s authorities discriminated against them because of their Jewish identity. A student was singled out for criticism by a teacher in the presence of other students because he had “started growing facial hair in accordance with Jewish tradition and law”. A student was addressed in Hebrew and anti-Israel comments were made in class.
The school’s efforts to address antisemitism were handled poorly, the documents claimed.
For example, when the Holocaust graphic novel Maus was introduced in class, teachers had not managed to quell an upsurge of antisemitic jokes that ensued, and Jewish boys being called “rats”.
However, a response from Brighton Secondary College filed with the court stated that while the school agreed there had been “some acts of intolerance by students”, it has denied legal liability.
The respondents – Brighton Secondary College principal Richard Minack and three teachers – stated, “Those acts included some acts of antisemitism, but also included acts concerning physical appearance, sexual orientation and other attributes.”
But it also claimed, “To the best of the respondents’ knowledge, the antisemitic acts were small in number and done by a small number of students.”
The school has rejected claims that swastika graffiti was tolerated and said measures were taken to erase it and find out who drew it.
“The allegation of ‘antisemitic attitudes and apathy that flowed from the top down [and] which were normalised’ is wholly rejected,” the school stated in its response. “The respondents rejected all forms of intolerance, including antisemitism.”
JCCV president Daniel Aghion told The AJN the Jewish roof body “is obviously concerned” about the allegations.
He said the aim of the just-completed bystander training program – delivered by Courage to Care – was “to educate school administrators and teachers about antisemitic conduct and how to effectively respond to it”.
“The JCCV expects that the bystander training program will arm the school with the tools to effectively deal with such conduct in the future,” he said.
Zionism Victoria president Yossi Goldfarb said, “It’s both shocking and dispiriting to read about these allegations.
“It is precisely for these reasons that we encourage non-Jewish schools to take part in our Connecting Cultures program, so their students can learn about Jewish history and culture, and be aware of the impact of their words and actions.”