NAPLES — Students at Naples Middle School who took part in “kick a Jew day,” were copying a prank they saw on the animated television show “South Park,” Collier School District’s superintendent said Tuesday.
Dennis Thompson said people should know the incident, which sparked national attention and has led to an overwhelming response from the public, was not spawned by religious intolerance.
In fact, two of the 10 students suspended for taking part in “kick a Jew day” come from Jewish families, he said.
Though one girl complained that she was kicked because she was Jewish, others who were kicked on Nov. 19 became victims for other reasons, Thompson said.
The school discovered upon further investigation that the students were motivated by the TV show and communications on the social networking site Facebook.
“What the school found out is that it wasn’t ‘kick a Jew day.’ It was a ‘kick a fill-in-the-blank day,’” Thompson said. “Many of the kids who kicked other students kicked someone they didn’t like or someone who is different. The kid who was kicked the most was new to the school. That, to me, is the tragedy. These kids picked on someone who was new to the school.”
The new student is not Jewish.
Thompson said it is unfortunate that one student was kicked for being Jewish but it seems to be an isolated case. He added that all of the students who were suspended had never been in trouble before.
“This is certainly not about religious intolerance. This is about, do you know who your child is communicating with? Do you know who your child is communicating about? The real lesson is that we need to understand what our kids watch and who they communicate with,” he said.
Some of the responses adults have sent him about punishing the students have been out of control, Thompson said.
“I have heard these students should be expelled,” he said. “What is the real crime here? These kids kicked a bunch of kids.”
In South Park’s “Kick a Ginger Day” show, foul-mouthed Eric Cartman spreads the word at school that red-haired kids, or “gingers,” are genetically defective, evil, and out to get non-ginger students. But when classmates dye Cartman’s hair red as he sleeps, he rallies other red-haired students with chants of “Red power!” Only after inciting the red-haired kids to round up non-gingers for “extermination” does he learn that he’s been the victim of a prank. At the show’s conclusion, all the students sing about brotherhood.
Intended to be satirical, the show played off virally-spread events aimed at Jews, homosexuals and other minorities. But satire can be lost on the young. On Monday, two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old in Los Angeles were arrested for bullying fellow red-headed students physically and over the Internet after they saw the episode and Facebook page.
The “South Park” episode, first shown in 2005, was itself supposed to be a lesson in tolerance but misfired, with harassment of red-haired students taking place at schools across the U.S. and Canada over the past few years. The show is rated for “mature audiences only,” which means that it may have content “unsuitable for children under 17,” according to Federal Communications Commission guidelines.
Thompson said he has received phone calls, letters and e-mails from individuals locally and as far away as Israel and Texas advocating that the students be suspended longer or expelled from the public schools for good. But he said he stands by Principal Margaret Jackson and her punishment decision, saying she did a “superb job” handling the situation.
After one student reported being kicked to a dean on Nov. 19, Jackson addressed the entire student body on the morning news regarding the incident, reviewing the code of student conduct, explaining why what happened was wrong, the need to respect one another and possible consequences, according to district spokesman Joe Landon.
Jackson asked that anyone with information on the incident come to the office and speak with her or the assistant principal for the investigation.
Thompson said 20 students came forward. School officials determined that 10 seventh-graders should be punished. The students received a one day, in-school suspension. The parents of the 10 students were also called and conferences with the parents followed the phone calls, according to Landon.
Parents of the students who were kicked were also notified of what happened, Landon said.
Landon said until further notice, the school will focus the first 20 minutes of each day on character traits, beginning with respect and kindness. Homeroom teachers will speak with the students about these traits and will focus on bullying prevention, he said. Videos on the topic will be sought out and used as part of the training, he said.
Landon said the first 20 minutes of the school day is normally used for reading time and tutoring time if students need help.
Thompson said after the incident, an additional two students were also suspended for getting off the bus wearing Adolf Hitler moustaches. Their parents were called.
“It was stupid behavior by a bunch of 12-year-olds,” he said. “Their parents were understandably horrified.”
Thompson agreed that many lessons can be learned as a result of the incident, but said adults just have to ask the right questions.
“What we need to focus on is the behavior. It is not appropriate to kick anyone for any reason,” he said.
The Collier County School District has a policy on bullying and harassment.
The students were disciplined in accordance with the bullying and harassment policy, which can range from “positive behavioral interventions up to and including suspension or expulsion, as outlined in the Code of Student Conduct,” according to the district’s policy.
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The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.