May 26—SALEM — Amanda Murphy, principal of Marblehead's Village School, acknowledged that "I feel a bit out of place, because I did want to take care of our students this morning."
Murphy, recipient of the ADL New England Educator of the Year award, was worried about her students, children the same age as the children murdered inside a Texas elementary school less than 24 hours earlier.
The school and town had dealt with its own challenges during the past year, amid multiple "upsetting" episodes of antisemitism.
They were not alone.
ADL Regional Director Robert Trestan said there had been a 42% increase in reports of antisemitic incidents in the past year. But there has also been a rise in reports of harassment and discrimination against Black and Asian people and the LGBTQ community, he said.
"It is a scary time," Trestan told the audience Wednesday morning at the ADL's annual Essex County Law and Education Day breakfast, held at the Kernwood Country Club.
The theme of the event was book banning and its impact on students and on democracy. The tables were topped with centerpieces and copies of books that have been banned over the years in various places.
Wednesday's speakers traced the line between censorship of information about historical events like the Holocaust and slavery, and today's extremist ideologies and mass shootings.
Joe Berman, chair of the ADL New England Regional Board, said "recent events, including the tragedy last night obviously, in Texas, that is all front of mind for all of us ... have shown us the importance of this work."
Keynote speaker Jocelyn Kennedy, director of the Harvard Law Library, recalled her own experience in high school.
"When I was in 10th grade, my English class was assigned to read "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker," Kennedy recalled. "The teacher passed the book out on a Friday and said 'read the first two chapters.'"
Kennedy read the entire book that weekend. But that Monday, there would be no discussion. "When I slid into my seat to start the classroom discussion, we were told to pass in our books."
One parent had read just the first page and called the principal. That was all it took.
Kennedy cited figures from the American Library Association showing more than 15,000 book challenges in the United States in the past nine months alone.
It is the largest number since the organization began tracking requests.
And that's troubling, Kennedy said. "Our ability to speak freely and critically as engaged citizens is one of the cornerstones of our democracy," she said. "We rely on the First Amendment to protect our ability to generate and access information."
Books were once primarily challenged on grounds that they were explicit or contained offensive material or were unsuitable for the age group reading them.
"But many of the challenges that have taken place over the last six months are just books that make people uncomfortable or challenge them," Kennedy said. Books with themes that deal with LGBTQ issues, or about the Holocaust, or that teach students about racism and diversity and inclusion are now frequent targets.
Lawmakers are also making it easier to do so, in one state even enacting a law that criminalizes a librarian's refusal to remove a book. Other states lack any formal process for considering a request to remove a book, letting the matter be decided behind closed doors, Kennedy said.
"So here's your call to action," Kennedy told the crowd, which included most of the area's police chiefs, the district attorney, the sheriff, several judges, mayors and town administrators from across the North Shore, school superintendents and other administrators, Sen. Joan Lovely and Rep. Paul Tucker, and dozens of students.
Murphy, who has been principal of the school since 2016, said she often tells students, "'I hate the golden rule.' And they look at me shocked. 'Why would you hate the golden rule?' We ask students 'how would that make you feel?' when they make a mistake. And we always run into, 'Well, I wouldn't care.' Our job as educators is more than to teach them to treat others the way they want to be treated. We must teach them to treat others better than they want to be treated."
Besides Murphy, the organization honored Peabody police Chief Thomas Griffin with the ADL Law and Community Service Award.
Griffin said he has a "tremendous amount of respect" for the work of the ADL.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis