It is the night of Jan. 19, 2017. The next day, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, will be inaugurated. A student walks through TPHS’ west quad, silently weaving in and out of the mottled shadows of the English building. The only lights abound from the orange incandescent bulbs above the lunch tables and the distant neon signs of the Del Mar Highlands. The student approaches a green electric box and slides his phone out of his pocket. In one hand, the perpetrator holds a photo from Google Images. In the other, a white graffiti marker pen. The artist looks back to the photo before to carefully tracing out the outline of a famous cartoon frog. No, not Kermit. Pepe.
A few months earlier, in October, the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol. Although the famous internet meme had existed since 2005, Pepe began to gain traction with the extreme far right, who identify as the “alt-right.” Websites like 4chan became breeding grounds for “alt-right”-appropriated Pepe memes “centered on racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted themes,” according to the ADL.
Anti-Semitism is defined as a hostility toward or hatred of Jews. While it has always existed in the United States and around the world, white nationalists and neo-Nazis have recently been given a new platform in the age of Trump. Trump’s controversial statements on immigration (“Build a wall”) and on ethnic minorities (“I want surveillance of certain mosques”) have been applauded by Richard Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, an organization likened to a white nationalist think tank by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate organization. David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan also endorsed Trump during the presidential campaign. After white nationalists held a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA., where a white supremacist rammed a car into 20 counter-protesters, Trump’s ambiguous response was seen as support by alt-right and neo-Nazi bloggers and publications, who see Trump’s equivocation as a gateway for their ideology to enter mainstream political discussion.
In its endorsement of Trump, one of the KKK’s official newspapers, the “Crusader”, noted that Trump is “moving the dialogue forward.” Trump’s campaign thoroughly denounced the endorsement, but that did not stop widespread press coverage of the story. In an interview with the “Washington Post”, the author of the endorsement, Thomas Robb, noted that Trump “kind of reflects what’s happening throughout the world. There seems to be a surge of nationalism worldwide.”
With a key in one hand, a male student carves a crude circle into a bathroom stall. Ribbons of plastic fall to the ground as he carves a cross through the circle. The symbol, seen in the masthead for the “Crusader”, was also the logo for Stormfront.org, a former website established by Ku Klux Klan member that served as a messageboard for white supremacists.
Graffiti like this is common at TPHS. The walls of the boys bathrooms are covered in off-white splotches of paint, the after-effects of quick cleanup jobs by maintenance staff. As an administrator, Principal Rob Coppo views graffiti as a “revenge factor” that is “generally vindictive” and done with the intention of “sending a certain message or getting back at somebody.” However, despite the fact that the motivations behind graffiti are “always individual,” according to Coppo, there is a very clear line between graffiti that is art and graffiti meant to intimidate and promote hate. The symbol inscribed in the bathroom stall was clearly the latter, according to Coppo.
“I think it’s the student acting out in a way because they don’t have a more positive outlet,” Coppo said. “This [graffiti in the bathroom] was just pure vandalism. This was [the perpetrator thinking] ‘I’m going to destroy something, and I’m going to try and hurt somebody else while I do it.’”
Offensive graffiti is not solely limited to those found in bathrooms; there are subtle traces of such graffiti in other parts of campus as well.
Jack Rosoff’s (12) attention is fading in class. He looks down to his desk and notices a swastika carved into the wood.
“I have seen quite a few [swastikas] in the time I have been here,” Rosoff said. “These swastikas have appeared on walls, in books and on tables.”
Rosoff, who is Jewish, believes that those responsible for the swastikas at TPHS understand the negative history behind them but “just don’t care.”
“I don’t really take it as much as an offense as a disappointment,” Rosoff said.
To TPHS Jewish Club adviser Rabbi Daniel Bortz, the swastika has a dark significance that reflects a deeply traumatic history.
“A lot of students don’t realize that … I’ve seen the ashes of the dead [and] the scratches on the wall of dying people in gas chambers [in concentration camps],” Bortz said. “I don’t think somebody who is doodling a swastika to troll people … really grasp[s] … all that goes behind it. Having said that, it is a problem.”
Chloe Laverson (‘17) was the president of Jewish Club last year. While she does not remember seeing many swastikas around TPHS, she did often hear anti-Semitic jokes.
“I have heard many insensitive Jewish jokes and even Holocaust jokes,” Laverson said. “People don’t understand the topic they’re joking about.”
Last November, a home in Carmel Valley was vandalized with an anti-Semitic message written on the front door. According to NBC 7, the message condemned a mezuzah, a traditional Jewish ornament that is hung on the doorframe of the home.
According to Laverson, San Diego has low amounts of anti-Semitic incidents, something she attributes to a large and supportive Jewish community. However, she believes anti-Semitism should be more carefully monitored at school and “talked about more” due to the current political climate.
“San Diego is a pretty safe haven,” Bortz said. “But we have to stay on top of stuff like that. It does exist in little pockets here and there.”
Slabs of clay sit in front of students in art teacher Katie Bayliss’ sculpture class. Students are busy making holiday-inspired clay figures, using their hands to roll and shape the clay. A distracted student picks up a neglected Sharpie and walks over to a shelf where the previous period’s projects are drying. Within a few seconds and several swift strokes of the marker, the back of a snowman figure is freshly branded with a crude swastika.
“I think that there is always some kind of fascination with the Nazis and Hitler,” Bayliss said.
Bayliss does not frequently find offensive marks in her classroom but has seen more in “other schools” where she taught.
“If I found the culprit, they would get a referral,” Bayliss said. “A lot of the time it’s hard to find the culprit if it’s just sketched somewhere randomly.”
In the rare event that a culprit is caught, there are many potential consequences. Depending on the degree of the vandalism, whether it be a small carving of a swastika on a bathroom stall or offensive words scrawled on a blue testing divider, the consequences vary in terms of severity.
“Being suspended is an academic consequence that students can face,” SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill said. “If we incur any costs for the cleanup, we can seek prosecution. Very often, the juvenile courts in the probation department order the student to pay us back for our costs in repairing the damage.”
However, if the vandal refuses to or is financially unable to compensate the school for the damage inflicted, the school may turn to “more severe criminal consequences and … also withhold [the student’s] grades and transcripts and high school diploma,” according to Dill.
Despite the serious nature of anti-Semitism, Bortz does not believe that students truly intend to target a particular demographic. He believes offensive graffiti largely stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding.
“It is a matter of education,” Bortz said. “If people saw the outcome, like the people who got affected by it, they would not do it.”
According to Bortz, the TPHS community can be open-minded. He has seen students from different faiths stop by Jewish Club meetings and casually engage with club members in a relaxed environment.
“I think it’s really cool [that the community can be supportive]. Most people are very open to a rabbi coming on campus,” Bortz said.
It is Jan. 20, 2017. As students stand in line to buy their lunch from the SDUHSD Food Services truck next to the E building, heads turn, fingers point and students gawk at a green electric box. Administrators are notified of the graffiti, and moments later a few staff members call for the removal of the paint. Although most of the artwork has been wiped off, anyone standing close enough to the box can still discern the traces of the graffiti outline of a certain controversial frog.
TPHS is taking one small step at a time to prevent offensive graffiti from appearing on campus.
“What we’re doing to prevent graffiti right now is trying to improve the culture on campus so that somebody doesn’t even feel the need to do it,” Coppo said.