Mountain Brook alumni push back against schools cutting ties with ADL

Mountain Brook High School. Photo from MBHS website.

After a city council meeting where Mountain Brook residents on both sides made remarks about the recent decision by city schools to disassociate from the Anti-Defamation League’s anti-bias training, opponents of the decision are fighting back.

On June 30, a group calling itself Mountain Brook Schools Alumni for Diversity started collecting signatures on an open letter to the Board of Education, to “express enthusiastic support” for the Diversity Committee and to “express concern” over the decision to disassociate from the ADL “in order to appease an extremely vocal minority of community members.”

The “vocal minority” refers to a group that attended the June 14 Mountain Brook School Board meeting to express opposition to the board’s relationship with the ADL, which has done faculty anti-bias training since February, and the ADL’s No Place for Hate curriculum was being considered for the coming year.

On June 23, the group issued a letter with about 225 signatures, then followed it up with an addendum that had another 400 signatures.

The signatures came from an email “survey” that apparently was sent to hundreds of parents but very few members of the Jewish community, and there were few if any Jewish signatories to the June 23 letter. This publication has thus far been unable to obtain the addendum.

The letter expressed “serious questions” about the Mountain Brook Schools Diversity Committee that was established last year, and referred to the ADL as a “political organization” whose positions belie its claim to be non-partisan.

Previous Coverage: After parent push, Mountain Brook Schools disassociate from ADL (June 24)

Amid concerns, ADL issues open letter to Mountain Brook community (June 29)

The alumni letter responds with “concern” over the decision to disassociate from the ADL, “which has successfully worked with hundreds of school districts.”

As of July 4, the alumni open letter has about 1800 signatures, almost all of which include alumni or parent affiliation details. A second, similar letter began on July 2 for others in the Mountain Brook community to sign.

In addition, MB Listens, an independent grassroots organization that promotes dialogue and diversity in the community, has been soliciting stories from the community, where students “have been marginalized in our community by acts of exclusion, bullying, prejudices, and/or bias because of your identity,” and is compiling them to present to the school system’s leadership.

“We have already heard from so many of you, and your stories and experiences are both heartbreaking and powerful,” MB Listens posted on Facebook. “It is hard for us to understand why some in our community continue to try and minimize this issue, and in some cases deny that a problem even exists at all.”

Not one isolated instance

While some backing the petition against the ADL assert that the entire push to have a diversity committee and bias training came from an isolated May 2020 incident — a video where a teen had swastikas drawn on his back, and some of those in the video were from Mountain Brook, many community members took to social media to share their experiences with antisemitism in Mountain Brook schools, from decades ago to the present.

Among the stories were fellow students giving Heil Hitler salutes to Jewish students, pitching pennies on the floor at Jewish students figuring the “cheap Jews” would eagerly pick them up, or swastikas scrawled around the schools.

The Alumni for Diversity letter said the 2020 incident was not isolated, and personal experiences of issues “long embedded in the culture of Mountain Brook schools” include “anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, harassment based on gender and sexuality, and other forms of racism and intolerance” by students, along with “particular faculty and administrators.”

The letter also notes that their education in Mountain Brook schools included “experiences that perpetuated historical myths, erased the contributions of non-white people, and failed to address practices that were profoundly exclusionary,” and “obscured historical facts about race and racism and avoided addressing racial discrimination as an ongoing reality,” with repercussions when they moved out into a more diverse world.

For most of their existence, the now-defunct fraternities and sororities at Mountain Brook High School excluded Jewish students, justifying the policy through the existence of BBYO in the Jewish community.

Some Jewish parents reported that their students wrote college admission essays on coping with antisemitic experiences in school.

Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss, who moved from Birmingham 10 years ago after serving 12 years at Temple Emanu-El, said it was “a shock” to him when he started visiting Mountain Brook Junior High during lunch, “mostly as a show of support for the Jewish kids who often felt like outsiders when Christian youth ministers would make a big showing of their presence at the school during lunchtime.”

Though he had approached the administration about the overall inappropriate nature of the clergy visits, the school resisted making any changes.

The first time Hausman-Weiss sat down with some Jewish students in the lunchroom, he heard “clinking” sounds. At first he ignored it, then turned around when it happened again. The third time, “one of the Jewish students said quite bluntly, ‘oh yeah, sometimes they throw pennies at us. We just try to laugh it off mostly’.”

Emanu-El Rabbi Adam Wright, who spoke about the issue during the July 2 Shabbat service, remembers how he had a meeting with religious school parents in the fall of 2018, after he first arrived in Birmingham. “They reflected to me their frustration with the school system, year after year after year, antisemitic comments… church groups coming in and proselytizing, using theology as a way to inflict fear and concern among Jewish students,” and that he had heard from alumni that “this is the same ethos that has been happening in Mountain Brook” for a long time.

What and whether to teach

Supporters of the petition have bristled at the idea that they completely oppose diversity training, they just feel that the ADL has become a partisan organization over the last few years, following the retirement of Abe Foxman.

The June 23 letter states that “we fully support the goal of respecting individual differences, we condemn illegal discrimination and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, and we oppose bullying and harassment in our schools,” but “many divisive political decisions and activities occur under the cover of promoting diversity.”

Wright said he has heard from parents in the school system who were uncomfortable with ADL program but still want “a comprehensive diversity curriculum being taught at Mountain Brook schools, and this is important to hear,” and that not liking the ADL “does not make one antisemitic.”

But he added that “Mountain Brook Jewish families deserve to be at the table and deserve to be heard,” and going after a historic organization that was founded to protect Jews, regardless of one’s opinion of its current leanings, would prompt a strong response. “What did you expect would happen… of course we’re going to internalize this.”

The Alumni for Diversity letter stated “this work can only be done successfully if done in partnership with outside organizations with expertise and experience in these areas,” and they are “alarmed” at efforts to create “an in-house approach, without the consultation of organizations and experts that have been working on these complex challenges for decades.”

Some also pointed to how the June 23 letter opposing ADL involvement ended, with a plea for the school board to not be “distracted” from “rigorous academic curricula, mainstream extracurricular activities and highly competitive athletic programs” that have kept the school system toward the top of state rankings.

Looking at the national picture, Aaron Ahlquist, ADL director of community engagement for the 11-state Southern division, said there are efforts in several state legislatures to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory. In some states, there has been civil debate over the controversial philosophy, in other states the debate has been less so.

Wright noted that when it comes to diversity curricula, the Jewish community has to be “cautious.” He cited the California bill requiring the teaching of ethnic studies, which has led to a year-long passionate debate over a curriculum “filled with violent role models and antisemites” and ignores or minimizes Jews, and includes anti-Israel elements.

He also mentioned a Seattle curriculum that is “harmful against the Jewish people.” A fifth grade mandatory curriculum on Native American history compares their struggle to that of the Palestinians against Israel.

However, No Place for Hate does not come anywhere close to those types of curricula. Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of ADL’s Southern division, said No Place for Hate “is a totally flexible program, it meets schools where they are,” letting them do diversity education on their own terms through three projects over the course of a year.

“There are a lot of false claims about what we do, and what we did with Mountain Brook,” Padilla-Goodman said, adding that she has never seen this kind of opposition to No Place for Hate. About 200 schools in the region use No Place for Hate, including the entire Huntsville system.

A 12-page anonymous “Mountain Brook Families… Resource Guide to the Anti-Defamation League” that was apparently circulated to the same list as the original email petition had interpretations of ADL materials that “were wildly off and jumped to some pretty intense conclusions,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate it has all got twisted and pushed out of its form.”

Another point of contention is that the ADL has not publicly released all its training materials which, like any other curriculum, are proprietary. Padilla-Goodman said the vast majority of the information presented is on the ADL website.

State Rep. Paul DeMarco said the Alabama Legislature needs to prevent similar situations in the future by not allowing taxpayer funding for programs where parents are unable to have full access to program materials.

City Council Showdown

On June 28, the Mountain Brook City Council meeting was packed by concerned residents who wanted to have their say on the topic.

There were two main categories of speakers. Some residents believe that when it comes to bigotry, antisemitism, racism and bullying in the Mountain Brook school system, such behavior by students is isolated.

The other was made up of citizens who think that the Mountain Brook schools are plagued by these problems big-time and that diversity training from outside consultants is badly needed.

Even though the council made it clear that it had no authority or public inclination to interfere with school board and school system decisions, it allowed the meeting to serve as a forum for citizens to express their views on what has become a controversial and fractious issue.

While the tone was civil, the comments were passionate, reflecting a deep divide among neighbors, with the ADL serving as a flashpoint for a group of parents that see ADL as having moved away from its core mission, and having become a left-leaning organization embracing causes and promoting strategies that are at odds with the more conservative views of many Mountain Brook families.

“Classroom not the place”

Krissie Allen, who has five children in the school system and who participated in the earlier ADL training, said, “It is a myth that those of us opposing ADL are opposed to diversity, inclusion and kindness.” When people get to know each other “it is really good for you, it improves trust and has the potential to create a better learning environment.”

What made her uncomfortable was she saw the ADL initiative as urging students to seek out instances of perceived prejudice and hate as defined by the ADL.  “It was like you were being asked to go and confront someone. I don’t think the classroom is the place for that.”

Added this Mountain Brook mom, “on occasion, kids are going to be mean” but it does not help to tell students “they have to be walking on eggshells.”

Among those on the other side of the issue was 67-year-old long-time Mountain Brook resident Frank McPhillips.

Noting that he was a founding board member of MB Listens, he said, “I love Mountain Brook… I love the Mountain Brook schools.  What I don’t love is the legacy of hate and division that has shadowed my beloved state for most of my life.”

McPhillips said he believes that what has plagued Alabama during much of his lifetime is that “we haven’t had leaders who would resist the loudest public voices.” He contended that in the current controversy “there is a silent majority who believes that a strong and self-confident community does not shrink from challenges.”

He said that ADL is an excellent resource because it has a long and storied history of combating antisemitism and other forms of hate and bigotry.

Referring to Mountain Brook as the “most educated and privileged community in Alabama,” McPhillips told the Council, “what we do will set the tone in our state… you should do what is right — not what a vocal minority tells you to do.”

Another speaker was Elizabeth Goldstein Shannon, who grew up in Mountain Brook, and then moved away and moved back. She said that “as a Jewish child growing up in Mountain Brook, I was subjected to a lot of antisemitism, beginning in second grade.” And, she added,  “it is still happening to my friends’ children — if you don’t believe it, you are hiding your heads in the sand.”

Shannon said the bigotry and prejudice that she and others feel remains unchecked and “should be not be swept under the rug… we need diversity, equity, inclusion to be taught to our children and grandchildren.”

Mountain Brook resident Sam Henderson, who opposes ADL’s involvement, took a different approach in his remarks.  Said Henderson, “Everybody here has great points.  I have learned a lot, but we do have problems.”

As one of the 625 residents who signed the letter opposing the school system’s involvement with ADL, Henderson said, “We do not feel there is nothing wrong here — and we have an opportunity and responsibility to make it better.”  Henderson said he believes those who signed the letter are “willing to work together to make things better and right.”

He said he believes the school system made the right decision in dissociating itself from ADL but also said that he would feel the same way about any “political” organization. “I am a lifetime NRA member but I don’t want them teaching your kids about the Second Amendment.”

Though the divide in the room was apparent, this Mountain Brook resident predicted  “we will get together and hammer out wonderful solutions — some will work and some won’t.”

The last person to speak from the audience was Jewish community member Helene Elkus, a former longtime Council member. She recalled her past efforts to bring attention to the problems of drugs and alcohol in the schools.

Elkus said that her efforts were met with resistance and that too many people mistakenly thought that there was a “moat” around Mountain Brook. Referring to the topic of bigotry in the school system, she said, “It is time to do something.”

Moving Forward

On June 24, Mountain Brook School Superintendent Dicky Barlow said in a statement that “discord surrounding the resources has become a significant distraction, and we believe that we can more effectively continue our work independently of the ADL,” developing its own framework with the input of students, parents, teachers and school administrators. He had previously said there would be no teaching of Critical Race Theory in Mountain Brook schools. Currently, it is not taught in any Alabama schools.

Wright said Alabama is a prime location for experiential learning about diversity and civil rights. “Go to Selma,” he urged. “Get on a bus and make personal experiences.”

He urged those who do not think there is much of a problem in Mountain Brook schools to “put yourselves in our shoes for once, to empathize with us just for this moment.”

Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, is a member of the Diversity Committee that was put together following the May 2020 video. “I saw this as an opportunity for real change, even though I was told not to get my hopes up,” he said in a note to the community on July 2.

He said the Federation is “continuing to pursue an active dialogue with the school district so that we can indeed effect the change that so many of us long to see.”

Whether or not the path forward includes ADL involvement, “I urge you not to lose sight of the result – to create a more diverse, tolerant, and accepting atmosphere for our children,” Cohn said. “The path to get there may not have been what we thought it would be, but it’s important for us to walk that path even with obstacles thrown in front of us until we get the results we so desperately need.”

The next regular meeting of the Board of Education will be July 12 at 3:30 p.m.