In a letter to members of its school communities, the Conseil scolaire catholique Franco-Nord has provided more details on its response to an antisemitic video shot on school property that has elicited strong reactions from the Jewish community and prominent national anti-hate organizations.
Although the school is not explicitly named, the letter states the video shot September 16 — capturing 14 grade 7 and 8 students at Ecole secondaire catholique Algonquin in North Bay marching on the school's athletic field while giving the Nazi salute and chanting, "F*ck the Jews!" and "Heil Hitler" — was the result of the group of students accepting "a challenge that was circulating on TikTok. The challenge was to promote hate and the public display of it on school grounds."
Used by hundreds of millions, TikTok is recognized as the fastest-growing app and social media platform in the world.
In their scholarly journal article entitled "Spreading Hate on TikTok," authors Gabriel Weimann and Natalie Masri note TikTok attracts "a huge audience of 1.5 billion active users, mostly children and teenagers. Recently, the growing presence of extremist groups on social media platforms became more prominent and massive. Yet, while most of the scholarly attention focused on leading platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, the extremist immigration to other platforms like TikTok went unnoticed."
The board writes, "We are heartbroken by what has happened and will not tolerate such behaviour in school. We are committed to increasing dialogue and knowledge in our classrooms and to supporting our students on their journey."
And, "Welcoming others and empathy are the foundation of our educational system, and such events and choices are the source of many challenges in society today. This group of students will also be asked to make a restorative gesture just as public as their previous actions. They must acknowledge their lack of discernment, digital citizenship, and the extent to which they have harmed the well-being of community members in the region and even the country."
Local police responded to the school Friday, September 17, following complaints from parents who had viewed the video, and as part of the school's internal investigation. Witnesses stated at least one staff member looked on as the students marched on the field but the school board has not responded to BayToday's request for information on the status of any investigation into the inaction of staff, nor its repercussions.
The video of the incident circulated on social media and since BayToday went public with the story last Tuesday, several national groups focused on combating antisemitism and racism — and specializing in matters related to hate — have weighed in.
On whether the video depicted hate speech, Martin Sampson, the Vice President of Communications and Marketing for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) stated unequivocally "marching through a schoolyard with arms raised in Nazi salute shouting 'F*ck the Jews!' is hate speech."
The textbook definition of hate speech is "abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation."
Meanwhile, Evan Balgord, Executive Director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network told BayToday, in his experience with the organization, this situation in North Bay is "one of the most shocking examples of this kind of thing happening in a school. It is to that level of severity."
The letter from the school board thanks community leaders for their response to the incident.
"We recognize the importance of working together for the benefit of our youth and that this is indeed our collective role. Moreover, it is together that we can better educate youth about the dangers of social media."
In this USA Today report, a counter-extremism think tank studying the link between hate and TikTok found — of 1,030 videos analyzed by researchers over three months in 2020 — nearly a third amplified white supremacy and included "genocide conspiracy theories that claim white people’s existence is under threat," plus videos containing anti-Black racism "and an alarming number of videos spewing offensive content about Asians, LGBTQ people, migrants and refugees, women, Muslims and Jews."
The school board stresses "this type of behaviour is not tolerated in our schools," and their actions have resulted in consequences for those involved. The board says lessons on the subject began Friday and will continue with visitors who "will provide the entire school community with dialogue and knowledge that can contribute to the social growth of youth and staff."
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies based in North York, Ont., said this past week it is "extremely disturbed," after viewing North Bay students "performing the Nazi salute and yelling antisemitic slurs."
The board adds, "Youth and adult education is key to stopping bullying, antisemitism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. We thank our staff and parents for their ongoing commitment to equity. Speaking out against all forms of prejudice is essential for the collective good and the rights of one's fellow human beings, as well as for ensuring a value-based school community that contributes positively and responsibly to the society we want for our children and future generations."