For more than two years, Elkan Pleat, 16, a junior at Monte Vista High School in Danville, hid an important part of his identity from the school community. He feared what would happen at school if people knew he was Jewish.
Since the beginning of his freshman year, Pleat has seen more than 20 swastikas in graffiti around campus. He has heard many Holocaust jokes claiming that someone should “finish what the Nazis started,” often making reference to gas chambers and furnaces. He made sure his Star of David necklace was not visible and recently stopped wearing it.
But on October 28, Pleat decided to take action.
Just hours after he saw a second swastika at school in two days – one inked in black in the boy’s bathroom “Sieg Heil” scrawled underneath, the second painted on a wall in the gym — Pleat delivered an impassioned, three-minute speech during the public comment portion of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education meeting.
The school district serves approximately 30,000 students at 35 school locations in Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, Diablo and San Ramon. Monte Vista High has about 2,300 students.
Pleat’s family moved to Contra Costa County from northern New Jersey eight years ago, joined Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and settled in Danville, a city of 43,000 people considered one of California’s safest communities. The median household income is $167,827 and the population is 78 percent white, according to the latest 2020 census data.
In February, anti-Semitic leaflets were spotted along a popular hiking trail, shattering Danville’s reputation for its warm, small-town charm. They contained propaganda about the Holocaust alongside a photograph of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz. Then, in April, the Danville Police Department condemned the anti-Semitic leaflets dropped outside several apartment buildings.
Since 2021, similar flyers have been found in cities and towns across the Bay Area.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League held several days of Burlingame school assemblies focused on Jewish allies in response to anti-Semitic jokes and bullying at both Burlingame Intermediate, a middle school, and Burlingame High School.
In 2017, a freshman at Alameda High School was the target of frequent anti-Semitic taunts and cyberbullying over text messages from classmates.
Across California, Pleat noted that antisemitic attacks have risen sharply, citing the ADL’s 2021 audit showing 367 reported attacks on Jews and Jewish facilities in California in 2021, almost triple the attacks since 2015.
“I am very concerned that things are escalating,” Pleat told the board, public attendees and others who watched the Oct. 28 Education Committee meeting live on YouTube. “After speaking up tonight, I don’t feel safe on your campus tomorrow. All I can think about is that someone will try to shoot me for being Jewish or for speaking up tonight.”
Finally, the teenager called for increased Holocaust education to address the anti-Semitism and Nazi graffiti he described.
Pleat, goaltender for the junior university water polo team, wasn’t sure how his peers would treat him at school the day after his speech. He attended classes as usual, having met with his school’s financial adviser that morning. Then, in the middle of the school day, he was informed by the Monte Vista Principal: Kevin Ahernthat the paved swastika could be seen again in the gym. Ahern said in an interview with J. that it appeared someone stuck their finger in the still-drying plaster and redrawn the swastika.
“It’s so frustrating because sometimes you feel like you’re chasing ghosts,” Ahern said, noting that catching the graffiti culprit is often difficult, and in the case of the gym, there are no cameras installed either, because there are also one is classroom.
In the end, the maintenance team scraped off the original plaster, replastered and sanded the wall with a quick-drying compound, and then painted the wall to thoroughly hide the swastika, he said. He also instructed school monitors, paid staff who provide campus security, to conduct more frequent checks in bathrooms and track vandalism by consulting video from cameras installed outside of bathrooms.
The verbal barbs and anti-Semitic jokes, Ahern said, are “the big piece” that he says the school needs to address explicitly and urgently.
To that end, this week’s “Mustang Moment” on November 9 — a once-a-month second-hour round table discussion on community norms and the harms of discrimination — will focus on antisemitism education and religious tolerance. In each classroom, a teacher-led presentation is followed by student discussion and written reflection. The school’s equity liaison developed the lesson in collaboration with several Jewish students on campus, including Pleat.
“The focus needs to be what these symbols mean and all the implications of what they mean and what they represent,” Ahern said.
When Ahern became principal eight years ago, Ahern said 65% of the students were white and 35% black. Today, 55% are black students (mostly Asian) and 45% are white.
Show a video of the liberation of a camp. Bring a Holocaust survivor to share their experiences. Make it close, personal, emotional to make them really feel.
Pleat said that while he appreciates the quick response and support he receives from school officials, he is not satisfied with the minimal Holocaust education he observes in the school’s curriculum — a page in his AP textbook for European history and a lesson on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Show video of the liberation of a camp. Bring a Holocaust survivor to share their experiences. Make it close, personal, emotional, to make them feel real,” Pleat told J.
Ahern said he agrees that Holocaust education is key, but implementing it will not be easy. For example, he said he received resistance from some teachers who said they were “uncomfortable” leading the class discussion about antisemitism because they were not adequately trained to teach a complex subject.
“I think Elkan’s conversation with the board has led to some other district-level conversations about how we’re bringing some deeper levels of Holocaust education into our dedicated history classes and English classes to make sure the students are very clear about what happened .” Ahern said. “The problem has not gone away and we must do everything we can to eradicate it.”
Ken Mintz, the outgoing education committee president, said he could not comment on how the district-level committee will address Pleat’s specific concerns. But he echoed Ahern’s argument that combating anti-Semitism is now a higher priority, in large part because of Pleat’s speech.
“These are things we take very seriously,” said the Jew Mintz.
The 18-year-old board member told J. that he and his fellow board members have long known of antisemitic acts and swastikas at Monte Vista High, and through their work with the ADL, seven schools in the San Ramon Valley have been labeled as such on the No Place for Hate campus in the year 2017.
Mintz added: “Here’s an instance where we’ve already taken action because things like this have happened to us before. But at the same time let the students come and speak [like Pleat did] Speaks loudly.”
In the past, Ahern has disciplined some students by issuing a five-day suspension, the maximum permitted by the state, and working with the student following the guidelines in the district’s Responding to Discrimination and Hate manual after the suspension. “I will always try to educate,” Ahern said, “but at the same time, your actions have consequences.”
Pleat, who used to remain silent when he heard an antisemitic joke, said he now feels empowered to report cases through the school district’s anonymous tip hotline, a resource the district launched in 2017, or directly to an administrator. Ahern said he hopes classroom discussions about antisemitism will empower more students to do the same.
“The last thing you want is to then be targeted for reporting [an incident] or you ratted someone out,” Pleat said. But at the Oct. 28 school board meeting, “I realized that I’d better be a target than someone who isn’t able to stand up for themselves or defend themselves.”
Pleat also thinks of his sister, a sixth grader at Diablo Vista Middle School, who has been the target of anti-Semitic comments from classmates since kindergarten.
Pleat’s mother, Arianna, initially said she was not in favor of him speaking at the education committee meeting because she was worried about his safety and the possibility of retaliation.
Ahern said he received messages of support from several local rabbis, including one who introduced him to a local interfaith council for guidance.
Following this week’s classroom discussions, Ahern plans to continue developing programs with the ADL and hopes to bring a panel of speakers to the school in the future, he said.
“Anti-Semitism is not just about religion. It’s also about racing,” he said. “We need to think about what that duality looks like and what that means.”