DEI report shows rise in bias-related incidents in Newton schools

The number of bias-related incidents reported in the Newton public school system has gone up significantly in the past year, according to the district’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Kathy Lopes, director of that department, presented an end-of-year report to the School Committee this week, giving a comprehensive look at how Newton’s DEI initiatives have progressed in the 2023-2024 academic year. That report includes data on bias incidents in the schools.

There were 169 reports of discrimination this school year, and that’s a 55 percent rise over the 2022-2023 school year.

“The increase is staggering,” School Committee member Amy Davenport said.

Lopes said one reason for increases could be a more responsive community since the district started training staff and community members to address bias-related complaints and incidents.

“So with more training, we anticipated reports would increase,” Lopes said. “We were making sure students—particularly middle school and high school students—were aware of our public reporting forms. So that is an expectation, that numbers would increase.”

But Lopes acknowledged the data showing an alarming trend, especially when it comes to race and religion.

Sixty percent of the incidents cited in the end-of-year report had to do with race. Twenty-three percent of the incidents were related to religion, with the majority of those being antisemitic or anti-Islamic in nature.

The number of incidents involving religion has tripled since last year, Lopes noted, with a sharp rise in Islamophobia since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack against Israel and resulting Israeli military operation in Gaza.

Nora Lester Morad of Auburndale cautioned the School Committee during the public comment portion of the meeting that not all bias incidents are reported while some that are reported are later found to be unfounded. And she said that many anti-Palestinian bias incidents go unreported or are reported and not included in the DEI reports.

“I know from my Palestinian, Muslim and Arab friends that there’s been a dramatic increase in school-based and community-based bias events targeting them and people who support them, especially in the last nine months,” she said, referring to the Hamas attack against Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent Israeli military operation in Gaza. “But they’re completely invisible in this report, even though those communities made great effort to reach out directly to district officials with their stories.”

Lester Morad said her own reports aren’t reflected in the district DEI report, and she called out the district for having the Anti-Defamation League, which has come under scrutiny in recent months, listed as partners on the district’s DEI website.

“I hope that NPS can find partners that do not pit Jews and Israeli Jews against Palestinians, when in fact we all have a collective interest in equality peace, justice stability and the ability to thrive together in our schools,” Lester Morad said.

Lopes responded to that criticism as she started her presentation, saying that the district’s partnership with the ADL partnership is limited.

“I am aware of some of the controversy with ADL,” Lopes said. “Our partnership with them is around their peer leadership program, which really is about training middle school students to create communities of respect and be upstanders, and it isn’t specific to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Regarding how many reported incidents are deemed unfounded, Lopes said that number is small. Of the 169 incidents listed, only 112 have reached findings, but that’s because many reports have not been completed yet.

“Of the 112 findings reports, 85 of them were substantiated, which is 76 percent,” Lopes said. “Only nine were found not substantiated which is 8 percent, and 18 were found inconclusive.”

If a report is inconclusive, Lopes explained, it usually means something happened and was addressed but motive or another factor may be unknown.

“It’s very rare that they’re not substantiated,” Lopes said.

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion was launched four years ago to address issues of bias and inequity in the city’s schools.