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George Washington High School is seen on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Many George Washington High School students showed up for classes in pajamas Tuesday morning, not because they rushed to make the first bell but to reflect their school pride as part of homecoming week.

But pajama day and the school spirit behind it was cut short as students and teachers turned their focus to healing from weekend vandalism that left swastikas and hate speech scrawled across parts of the campus, on athletic field buildings and equipment and on the surface of the outdoor running track. 

“Kids are showing up in their pajamas and wanting to have a typical high school experience, and we’re also talking about hate,” Principal Kristin Waters said.

The spray paint had been cleaned from the school building and grounds by the time students arrived for the week. But photos of the graffiti — which depicted racist, homophobic and antisemitic slurs and symbols — continued to circulate on social media. And students continued to reel, wondering how their campus could be darkened by such hateful images and messages.

The vandalism spree happened Saturday night, a day before a similar incident at the Denver Academy of Torah a few blocks away, where someone threw rocks through windows and damaged an electrical box late Sunday. No arrests were reported by Denver police, and it’s unclear if the incidents are related. 

For some students, the hate behind the vandalism feels especially personal.

Sisters Ella and Teah Stern, who are biracial and Jewish, are struggling to figure out how anyone moves forward from a hate crime. 

It was a “direct attack on my community,” said Ella, 17, a senior at George Washington High School. She added that she fears for the safety of her community.

The shocking vandalism highlighted the antipathy faced every day by people of color and other minorities, the sisters said.

George Washington High School is seen on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“I was surprised that it would happen at our school, but I wasn’t surprised that there is hate still out there like that,” said Teah, 15, a sophomore.

While the cost of covering the graffiti was low — the school spent about $450 repainting — the fallout continues, officials say.

The graffiti “targeted every student at our school and every staff member at our school,” Waters said, noting some students wonder whether they’re safe in their own community.

“They are also feeling horrible that this is their high school experience, that they have to be talking about this and living through this, and high school shouldn’t be this way,” she said.

But their high school experience has been marred by more than spray paint. Administrators at George Washington High School have steered students and staff through learning disruptions created by a pandemic, conversations about a national racial justice movement, mass shootings in other schools and a grocery store and, now, an act of vandalism right on school grounds.

“Every day is hard,” Waters said.

To begin healing, students gathered in a lunchtime forum at the school on Tuesday with staff members and some district board members. The forum, which was closed to most of the public, including reporters, gave kids a safe space to share their feelings in the wake of their campus being violated.

The school also provided an opportunity for students to reflect on Wednesday. On Thursday, students and teachers will shift the conversation to how they move forward in unity — a conversation that will continue in the coming weeks.

But for Ella and Teah Stern, words aren’t enough. The sisters are grateful that school leaders condemned the vandalism, but they’re looking to those same leaders to also listen and dial up their level of action.

The schoolwide discussions that have been held so far have been organized by students, Ella said. She was disappointed that her school’s diverse student body wasn’t reflected among those who attended Tuesday’s student forum.

“So much of the power rests in the voices of those who were targeted,” she said. “And I just think they were kind of stripped of an opportunity to share their trauma and share how this is affecting them.”

The sisters have also battled a sense of isolation while trying to comprehend why someone would rattle their school with derogatory words and images rooted in discrimination. Many of their friends have expressed empathy, but cannot grasp the kind of fear and disgust that follows a racist, homophobic, antisemitic attack. Ella hopes administrators will set aside class time for students to talk about the wounds left by the vandalism so that classmates in pain “feel seen and feel safe.”

Waters said that the school focused on student reflection, conversation and how to take action moving forward on Wednesday and will continue those discussion points on Thursday. Next week, she will lead a session alongside students who pulled together the student forum to brainstorm changes high schoolers would like to see.

Waters is already wondering what more she can do to spare her students from more safety concerns and suffering.

George Washington High School in Denver. (Google Maps photo)

“It’s made me wonder how I can change the experience that kids are having as far as feeling safe and making their high school experience not be one where they have to consider things like this and feel this trauma,” she said.

Other students like Jay Gibson, a junior, were left unsettled in the aftermath of the vandalism. Gibson, who is Black, said he’s wrestled with both anger and pain. But he’s also become desensitized to acts of racism because of how prevalent they are.

Gibson, 17, visited his campus on Sunday night to survey the damage after finding himself in disbelief upon learning about the vandalism through social media and seeing peers’ Snapchat posts about it.

The teenager recalls seeing a lot of swatiskas spray painted along with antisemitic language.

The act of vandalism amounted to something “stupid” and “childish,” Gibson said.

He sees it as “being hateful just with no reason behind it.”

It’s also “a really cowardly action,” said Scott Levin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Mountain States Region, an organization dedicated to stopping antisemitism and fighting for equal rights.

The organization participated in George Washington High School’s student forum on Tuesday, supporting students and speaking out against the hate lobbed toward their school.

“It’s a difficult thing when people have to know that they’re going to a school in a community where that kind of hateful behavior has taken place,” Levin said.

He pointed to the importance of shining a light on hateful activities and publicly condemning them, and the need to walk students through anti-bias lessons, as it works to help students be respectful toward one another, their identities and their differences.

“All students deserve to learn in an environment that’s free of intimidation and intolerance,” Levin said. 

Acts of intimidation and intolerance like the one at George Washington High School have been continually increasing, said Rabbi Joseph Black, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Denver.

His described his reaction to the latest hateful graffiti as “shock tempered by inevitability.” 

“We are seeing a rise in (an) inability to listen to each other, to hear each other, that is accompanied by extremism on all sides of the political spectrum,” Black said.

“Dialogue has been replaced by diatribe,” he added.

Black saw photos of the vulgar phrases and images defacing George Washington High School and described them as “ignorant, racist hatred.”

“This was so blatant and so raw I think it took it to another level, and it’s very, very sad,” he said.

Preventing similar hate crimes in the future hinges on finding common ties at a time of historic division, Black said.

“We need to do all that we can,” he said, “to try and find the humanity and the holiness all around us.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...