Brighton Secondary College students drawing swastikas trying to be ‘edgy’, says former teacher

A former Brighton Secondary College teacher said if students were drawing swastikas at the school, it was because they were “trying to be edgy 15-year-olds” and “not making a connection” or “thinking” about the impact on Jewish students.

Five former students – Matt and Joel Kaplan, Liam Arnold-Levy, Guy Cohen and Zack Snelling – are suing the government-run school and the state of Victoria for negligence and failing to protect them as Jewish students under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act.

Former Brighton Secondary College students Matt Kaplan (left) and Liam Arnold-Levy have accused the school of ignoring complaints of anti-Semitism.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Among the students’ claims are that there were hundreds of swastikas at the school and a culture of anti-Semitism.

Teacher Lana Goldstone told the Federal Court she was “hypersensitive” to anti-Semitism as a Jewish woman whose family included Holocaust survivors, but did not experience a culture of anti-Semitism while teaching at the school between 2015 and 2018.

Nor did she see or hear Nazi salutes or “heil Hitlers” and only recalled seeing one swastika at the school, which was “doodled” on a student’s notebook in 2017.

“This, I believe, wasn’t done out of malice, it was done out of ignorance and being unaware,” she said.

She said she never heard students using the word Jew to mean stingy or bad “but that could have very well happened”.

Goldstone helped develop the unit plan for teaching Maus, a graphic novel about WWII, which the applicants’ barrister Callum Dawlings said contributed to fuelling anti-Semitism. But Goldstone said Maus was taught in “the correct and most sensitive way”.

She said that during her time as a teacher, she was aware of a student in another class who was teased for her Jewishness, and vaguely remembered an email of a teacher saying there were more than 11 swastikas in an English class.

“I believe they were trying to be edgy 15-year-olds and were not making a connection and thinking,” she said.

Brighton Secondary College.Credit:Joe Armao

Goldstone told the court it was hard for her to answer because she did not know which students were involved, but “would personally like to see the good in people and the good in teenagers”.

She also could not remember Joel Kaplan reporting to her that a teacher had told him to take off his skullcap in class.

Brighton Secondary College teacher Paul Varney, who is a named respondent in the case, said he did not feel he had done anything he needed to apologise for.

The applicants’ barrister, Adam Butt, pressed Varney, saying greeting Cohen with “shalom” in front of the class, knowing he was Jewish and Israeli, “humiliated” him and contributed to him hiding his Jewish identity.

“I would feel ashamed if I thought people thought our school normalised offensive graffiti like that.”

But Varney said he had not singled out Cohen.

“I was so besieged by the two boys [Cohen and Kaplan] shouting at me, it didn’t register to me that this was a genuine complaint I needed to follow up. I thought, ‘fine, I’ll stop saying shalom’,” he said.

“I was never aware until now that he was embarrassed and he felt isolated. I was never aware of that.”

Varney also denied saying a Hebrew slur to Cohen, could not remember why he brought a pre-1948 world map to his English class, denied saying that Israel didn’t exist, or that it was no better than terrorists.

He also said Brighton was “a big school”, had no knowledge of the swastikas – besides one mentioned by a teacher – and told the court he could not recall Cohen reporting a swastika carved into a desk in 2018.

“I would feel ashamed if I thought people thought our school normalised offensive graffiti like that,” he said.

He said he believed he had a good relationship with Kaplan in years 9 and 10 and would like to think “after this thing had finished, if I bumped into the boys in the street” they’d be able to have a chat.

The court previously heard Jewish students suffered a range of anxiety disorders due to their treatment and that the school had an “abrasive” culture they found “dehumanising”.

The trial, before Justice Debra Mortimer, continues.

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