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Pa. lawmakers grapple with hate speech in education

  • Ben Wasserstein/WITF
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg on March 24, 2023. Jeremy Long - WITF News

 Jeremy Long / WITF

The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg on March 24, 2023. Jeremy Long - WITF News

State lawmakers from both parties are tackling hate speech in schools but in different ways.

The House GOP Monday unveiled a legislative package specifically dealing with antisemitism, while Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery, plans to unveil legislation dealing with hate speech more generally.

Haywood embarked on a tour of Pennsylvania college campuses beginning in April 2022 and ending last month. He learned of numerous acts of hate speech.

“Students reported that their white peers were using racial slurs casually and that one group of students chanted the name of a song that’s traditionally linked with the Ku Klux Klan,” he said.

His legislation would amend the PA Fair Educational Opportunities Act and give power to the Human Relations Commission.

Under the bill, the HRC could visit educational institutions to study the racial tension and environment. It would also allow the commission to use remedies in the Human Relations Act.

Haywood plans to release a report on the tour in January.

Human Relations Commission Executive Director Chad Dion Lassiter joined Haywood on the tour and recounted the deep levels to which hate runs.

“We didn’t just hear hurt,” he said. “We didn’t just hear pain. We heard anguish. We heard students grappling with hate in the classroom. Hate on campus. Hate in the town.”

In the House, Reps. Rob Mercuri, R-Allegheny, Kristin Marcell, R-Bucks, and Joe Hogan, R-Bucks, introduced a three-piece package dealing with antisemitism.

In 2018, Pennsylvania bore witness to the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history with the Tree of Life shooting.

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 388% uptick in antisemitic incidents.

The first piece of legislation would have antisemitism recognized as bullying or harassment on college campuses.

The second would require Holocaust curriculum transparency in public schools.

The final piece would create “Antisemitism Awareness and Education Day” in Pennsylvania.

“Parents are scared to death that when they send their child back to college, that they will be targeted either violently or just a passing victim of a protest because they happen to be of the Jewish faith,” Hogan said. “That is wrong, that is unacceptable, and we’re taking a stand on it today.”

Marcell cited a recent article from The Economist that shows one in five Americans between 18 to 29 believe the Holocaust is a myth, as a reason for the package’s importance.

“Teaching about the Holocaust is not just about learning history; it is about safeguarding democratic values and promoting a more just and tolerant society,” she said.

Marcell said they are finalizing the language and the proposals should be bipartisan.

Marcell said she hopes their measures can be taken up when the House reconvenes in March.

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