SALEM — As racial tensions continue to escalate with mass shootings, hate crimes and other race-related violence nation-wide, Salem State University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies is playing a central role in implementing a new state law that requires Massachusetts middle and high school students are educated on genocide and mass atrocities.
School districts are receiving grants from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to expand and improve Holocaust and genocide studies, following the adoption of a law signed in late 2021 by then-Gov. Charlie Baker to require genocide education.
As a result, the center at Salem State — which has a long history of preparing educators to teach on these topics — is now partnering with schools in Beverly, Masconomet, Lynn, Lynnfield, Melrose, Woburn, Essex Tech and Shawsheen Valley Technical High School, the university recently announced. Peabody, Salem and Fitchburg will also take part in aspects of the programming.
“We think that, by educating the public — researching and working with teachers — we can help lessen the outbreaks of mass violence, racial incidents, ethnic hatreds, and ultimately genocide if it comes to that,” said Chris Mauriello, the center’s director and a history professor at Salem State. “Our role is both activist and educational by design.”
Brad Austen is an educational fellow with the center, a history professor and secondary education coordinator for the history department. He also teaches college-level courses at Salem High.
“We’ve had resource teachers trying to think about, ‘How am I going to do this job I want to do so badly?’ We’ve had administrators on board talking about, ‘How do you manage expectations with the community and communicate with the School Committee?’” Austen said. “We want to introduce people to the latest thinking and most up-to-date scholarship, and the sophisticated grad school-level conversations.”
From now until June, the center will host virtual learning communities on “the challenges and opportunities of implementing the new Genocide Education Act.” Events in April and July will take deeper dives on the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, including a week-long travel study course titled “Race and Rights in the American South.” In that example, students will “visit Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee after studying the complex dynamics of race, rights and power structures in the American South.”
In Beverly, genocide is already taught at the middle school and high school levels in a variety of courses and electives, school officials said. Likewise in Peabody, the district has well-established curriculums in place, but the grant will solidify existing relationships with the Lappin Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves, as well as Salem State, according to Superintendent Josh Vadala.
The district can now roll out professional development around this area of focus for its staff and schedule more speakers and programming for students about genocide and related topics, Vadala said.
“Many of our teachers and our students don’t have a real understanding of what has happened throughout history in terms of the Holocaust and genocides,” he said. “As we look at what’s currently happening in our country and overseas, it’s really important that we’re creating educated global citizens that can identify what’s happening and have a better appreciation for the past to make sure that they can be better citizens moving forward.”
In Salem, the district partnered with the Lappin Foundation and Salem State last school year to host three symposiums for students in all grades to learn about the Holocaust and genocide. The district said it is working this year to send teachers to professional development to bring back courses on the topics. Recently, the schools again partnered with the Lappin Foundation for students enrolled in American & World Encounters II to hear survivor testimony via Zoom.
At Essex Tech, the grant will allow students to visit Germany and experience Holocaust memorials, museums and sites there first-hand, said Thomas O’Toole, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
The students will be a part of the school’s already existing genocide studies class that has become Essex Tech’s most popular elective, O’Toole said. The two-week-long exchange trip will take place during April vacation. In the fall, students from a technical high school in Germany will come to Danvers. and Essex Tech will also have more funding to bring in genocide survivors and experts to interact with students.
So what exactly can university professors and school teachers do to stop genocide? For Mauriello, that’s “the hardest question for genocide education.”
The answer, he said, lies in protecting democracy.
“We’re utilizing different resources that talk about learning about not only what happened, but why something happened in order to see early identifiers of genocide or pre-genocidal activity,” Mauriello said. “Looking at propaganda critically... who is the target of the propaganda? How are they representing the victim group? Who is the insider? Who is an outsider?
“Once genocide starts, it’s very difficult to stop,” he said. “Understanding and identifying the markers — racism, prejudice, politicization of differences... those are identifiable markers that almost all genocides have.”
When asked what comes next, Austen laughed and answered, “historians are really bad at predicting the future.”
“What comes next, I hope, is that over the next one to five years, every school district in Massachusetts takes a good, hard look at what they’re doing,” Austen said. He also said he hopes they treat “this as an opportunity to not only just document that they’re doing the bare minimum but think about how they’re preparing students to participate in a vibrant democracy — to value and protect it.”
Staff writers Caroline Enos and Paul Leighton contributed to this report.
Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.