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Making peace after ugliness in Harvard

HARVARD — After offensive graffiti was found on a rock in front of the school, the community took quick action. Students painted over the images the day they were found.

“There was enough on that rock to insult everyone,” said Scott Hoffman, principal of Bromfield School, serving grades 6 through 12. “There was a lot of angst, a lot of outrage.”

The rock, traditionally painted by seniors, was defaced in November.

In October, two months earlier, a highway overpass was tagged. It also was painted over the day it was found, said Police Chief Edward D. Denmark.

A swastika and male genitalia were painted on the rock, he said. Islamic symbols, a crescent and star, along with the words “bomb me please” were found on the overpass.

“That is not who we want to be,” Hoffman said.

In 2015, 81 percent of the Bromfield students were identified as white, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education.

In the past, there has been some racial tension between students that was handled in the schools, said Superintendent Linda Dwight.

Two seniors did not see the graffiti as racist, but more as a joke gone wrong. Neither saw deliberate racism in the schools.

Students’ names will not be used because their parents were not present.

“I feel like it’s a prank, but it went too far,” one senior said. “I feel like our town overreacted a little bit.”

One seventh-grader disagreed. “I think it was pretty disturbing. Nobody does this, at least in this town.”

Another senior, a member of a minority group, said, “Sometimes you hear stories. They don’t mean it.”

Like students, residents had mixed views on the intent of the graffiti.

“I think it’s terrible anywhere that anyone does anything like that,” said resident Jackie Koller, who organized a peace vigil on the common during the inauguration of the president. “It’s not expected in a quiet, little town like Harvard.”

“I think kids just don’t know any better,” said Jay West who will move from Boston to Harvard next month. “They have no idea why. They are just trying to be nasty.”

Perhaps, he said, they were a little bored.

“To me, it’s just kids being kids,” said resident John Fleming.

The offensive graffiti spurred an effort to make Harvard more inclusive and welcoming to members of minority groups. The League of Women Voters approached the schools to partner with churches and the community to form a steering committee, the superintendent said.

About 35 people attended the first meeting held on Jan. 4, Dwight said. They will send out email asking for volunteers and are in the process of crafting a mission statement.

The police chief said that the police response to the incidents is complicated. “Everyone’s categorizing this stuff before we know what it is,” Denmark said.

The images on the rock were protected speech, he said. Under the first amendment, public speech is protected.

“At the school, because the rock was allowed to be sort of a canvas, it then becomes a public forum for speech,” he said.

Unless the words are aimed at a target, it is not hate speech, Denmark said. “Bomb me please” could refer to bombing the bridge, not necessarily a group of people.

The incidents in Harvard do not reflect the community, Hoffman said. “It’s been nice to see the response of all.”

“It’s around unfortunately,” he said of the divisive acts. “How do we disagree without falling into hate?”

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.

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