Long Island middle and high school students would be taught the hateful meaning of the swastika and the noose as part of new legislation introduced last week by state lawmakers.
The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), comes amid a dramatic uptick in hate crimes across Nassau this year, including the discovery last week of seven swastikas on a pavilion at Theodore Roosevelt Park in Oyster Bay. Nassau officials have offered a $20,000 reward leading to an arrest in the case.
"It's incredibly important that when our young people go to school they understand what these symbols mean, how they were used and what kind of pain they can inflict in our communities," Kaminsky said at a news conference in Rockville Centre.
Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), the bill's sponsor in the Assembly, said the measure will help students better "protect themselves from the symbols of hatred, the symbols of intolerance and the symbols of death."
The bill would mandate that public and private schools statewide incorporate into their grades six-through-12 curriculum a discussion about the history of the swastika, commonly used as an emblem in Nazi Germany, and the noose, a symbol of racism, lynching and intimidation against African Americans.
"The swastika and the noose serve as some of the most significant and notorious of hate symbols, anti-Semitism and white supremacy for most of the world," Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said. "They are shorthand for racism and bigotry. They are pernicious and insidious and yet most students don't know what they mean."
The bill will be taken up when the legislature returns to session in January and would take effect no earlier than September 2020.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said hate crimes had been declining until recently. In 2016, the Nassau Police Department reported 59 hate crimes; 56 in 2017 and 34 in 2018. But so far this year, there have been 44 hate crimes in Nassau as compared with 20 at this point in 2018, Curran said.
"Clearly we are not giving our young people the knowledge that they need to not perpetrate these kinds of crimes," Curran said.
Singas said prosecutors will often send young defendants charged with drawing swastikas to the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove to be educated about the symbol's meaning. If defendants complete the program, she said, prosecutors will generally dismiss the case.
"Imagine the impact of a swastika on the survivor of the Holocaust or a young African-American kid who has been subject to some kind of racism," said Steve Markowitz, chair of the Holocaust Center. "These symbols are very hurtful and we try to teach how powerful and impactful they truly are."
Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director of the NAACP, said communities need to be more proactive in teaching tolerance as opposed to responding reactively to the infractions.
"Our teachers have the best opportunity to partner with parents to teach awareness and diversity," Edwards said.
While most school districts teach the history of slavery and the Holocaust, officials said they rarely delve into the deeper meaning of the symbols.
John Buglione, a social studies teacher at Baldwin Senior High School, said there is no specific mandate to teach students about the history of racist and anti-Semitic symbols.
"This will go a long way in teaching students … why we as a society have designated these symbols as hate speech," Buglione said.