Mountain Brook Schools meet with Jewish leaders, issue apology for lesson that “lacked sensitivity”

Mountain Brook High School

Two days after footage from an 11th grade history lesson went viral (our original story is here) and Mountain Brook Schools issued a preliminary statement about the controversy, the system issued a followup after meeting with the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council.

The controversy centered around a lesson about the Bellamy Salute, which was developed to accompany the Pledge of Allegiance. The salute was retired in 1942 because of its resemblance to a Nazi salute.

After the mention of how symbols can change over time, Coach Joe Webb, who teaches the class, reportedly had students rise to say the Pledge in that pose. While the school has stated he did not instruct anyone to do that pose, there are reports from two sections of the class that those instructions were given.

Epps Tytell, the one Jewish student in one of the classes, posted a photo and four-second video on his social media, showing classmates giving what looks like a Nazi salute to anyone who is unaware of the Bellamy Salute. The footage was taken by a yet-unidentified non-Jewish classmate.

The next day, Tytell was called into the office of Assistant Principal Jeremy Crigger, where he was instructed to apologize to Webb and apparently told that there would be consequences if this got out and made Mountain Brook “look bad.” He refused, and his desk was moved next to the teacher’s desk in that class.

The lesson took place on Jan. 18, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that the story began to spread, culminating with the story going national on Feb. 8.

Parents of students at Mountain Brook Junior High reported that on Feb. 9, the school’s policy against use of cell phones, which had been mostly overlooked recently, is now being enforced.

The BJF and JCRC met this week with Superintendent Dicky Barlow, Mountain Brook High School Principal Philip Holley, Director of Student Services Amanda Hood and School Board President Nicky Barnes. The Federation stated they have been in an ongoing dialogue with the school system, and this week “we had an open and honest dialogue regarding the incident and its effect and implications for our students, Jewish community, and the City of Mountain Brook.”

The JCRC wants “to assure everyone that this situation has, and continues to be, taken very seriously by the parties mentioned above. They fully recognize and understand the insensitivity of the instruction in the classroom that day and the absence of a safe space for learning for the students,” and they will work with the system to ensure follow-up.

Noting that the past few days have been “a very difficult time for the high school, school system, and community,” the school system’s statement on Feb. 10 said “We continue to learn about this matter and have heard many perspectives.”

The statement said it has been clear that “the instructional strategy for this lesson lacked sensitivity, and however unintentional, caused hurt and distress within the community.”

Noting that the salute “desecrates (the) memory” of the 17 million killed by the Nazis, including 6 million Jews, “We are deeply apologetic for the pain caused. There are more effective ways to teach this subject without recreating painful, emotional responses to history’s atrocities.”

The system will work with the Alabama Holocaust Education Center on training about the Holocaust, antisemitism and the symbols of both.

The statement ended with “We absolutely and unequivocally stand against Antisemitism.” Most Jewish parents and alumni reacting to the controversy online did not refer to this particular incident as antisemitism, but as insensitive or ill-advised.

None of the statements have mentioned the school’s actions toward Tytell.

In his weekly message to the community, Federation CEO Danny Cohn said the Federation and its agencies are available to those who want to talk, and Collat Jewish Family Services is ready for any student who wants a safe space to talk about emotions from the events of the week.

The Federation is also collecting messages of support for the Tytells. Cohn said “we as a community owe them gratitude and support” for speaking out, and messages can be left in the mailbox outside the Federation office.

Civil Rights Institute Responds

On Feb. 11, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute issued an appeal for multicultural education, noting that last July it had issued a letter to Mountain Brook Schools faulting them for not having a systemic approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “It is in this light that we find a more recent incident involving the Nazi salute displayed by students in a Mountain Brook classroom particularly disconcerting, as it shows a conspicuous lack of preparation on the part of administrators to discuss, teach and lead in this area.”

Knowing about historic manifestations of racism and the effect of discrimination “is a crucial task necessary for ending discrimination based on race and religion” and requires the effort of the entire community, the statement said.

The Institute stands with the Federation and JCRC “to be truth bearers and standard keepers.” The Institute implores community and school leaders in Mountain Brook “to face the courageous conversations that have been proven necessary to make every corner of Jefferson County a place that is welcoming and respectful to all,” and invites them to visit the Institute “to see how heinous and discriminatory behaviors have plagued our nation for generations, and to engage in the brave dialogue necessary to better serve the community.”

(Updated 9:45 a.m. with Cohn’s remarks. Updated 10:45 a.m. with BCRI statement)