CUPERTINO -- At first glance, Monta Vista High School's yearbook looks impressive, the successful result of an all-out effort to put out a pristine product. But buried among its slick photos and creative captions is an anti-Semitic slight -- purposely planted by a student against a Jewish classmate from Israel.
The insult passed unnoticed by the yearbook adviser -- and was published in all 1,600 copies -- because the boy did not use an obvious racial slur. Instead, he has admitted to school officials that he intentionally changed the last three letters of his classmate's name to "jew" while labeling a team photo.
Discovered during the last week of classes, the subtle taunt has created heartache for the victim's family, who fled Eastern Europe after barely surviving the Holocaust. It's also created a predicament for the school, which prides itself on its diversity and is struggling with few options to fix the problem since the yearbooks have already gone out.
"The administrative leadership teams at Monta Vista High School and the Fremont Union High School District are outraged by this incident," spokeswoman Sue Larson said. "We do not and will not tolerate racial slurs of any kind."
One of the district's first steps was bringing in police to investigate. But while prosecutors called the incident "extremely disturbing," they said they are unlikely to file hate crime charges against the student because he did not threaten his classmate, vandalize property or commit a violent act. This newspaper is not publishing either student's name because both boys are minors.
In contrast, the District Attorney's office recently charged four young San Jose State students with the racially tinged hazing of a black freshman who shared their dorm suite, alleging that the harassment involved explicit racial slurs, went on for weeks and got physical, including the clamping of a U-shaped bike lock around the boy's neck.
It is unclear whether the Monta Vista boy actually dislikes Jews or was making an insensitive joke that went too far. But Jewish leaders and groups that fight bigotry expressed concern about what they say is increasingly commonplace ribbing among Silicon Valley high school and college students based on race, religion, sexual preference or ethnicity. At least one of the San Jose State students charged with a hate crime, for instance, told campus police the incidents -- including writing a universally reviled racial slur against blacks on a bulletin board in the living room of the suite -- were pranks.
To raise awareness of the problem, activists tried unsuccessfully to pass a state Senate bill earlier this year that would have required schools to document even minor bullying incidents. And schools work with one nonprofit, Silicon Valley FACES, to bring kids to Camp Everytown, an intensive youth leadership development program in the Santa Cruz Mountains dedicated to reducing bigotry.
"We have this fabulous diversity but we haven't done much to help kids cope with it," said Diane Fisher, of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. "Yet we know that even mildly offensive incidents can build and poison the entire atmosphere."
School officials said the offender in this case will face "consequences." But they declined to say because of privacy laws whether that includes counseling.
The victim's parents, who speak Hebrew at home, are stunned by the stain on their son's name in the yearbook. The boy's mother said it brought to mind signs posted in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust era that read, "No Jews or dogs." Jews were also labeled during World War II by the Nazis, who forced them to wear yellow badges announcing their religion.
"It always starts out little by little," she said. "It's better to stop this now when it's little."
She and her husband have demanded the district recall the yearbooks. But they don't want administrators to explain to students and their families who was involved or what page the slur is on because they are leery of drawing attention to their son. He has told them that jokes about religion and ethnicity are nothing unusual at the school and that he has been trying to laugh off the incident.
Of Monta Vista's 2,351 students, only 16 percent are white. More than three-quarters are Asian, including Indian and Pakistani; almost 3 percent are two or more races; nearly 3 percent are Latino, and less than 1 percent are black.
District spokeswoman Larson said a recall is still under consideration. But administrators fear it would be "next to impossible" because "it is unlikely that students would be willing to return their yearbooks, which are already filled with messages from their friends and classmates." The yearbooks cost the district $64,000 to produce and sell for $90 apiece.
However, the district will not be sweeping the incident under the rug, she said.
"We will be working with our students and community to help them understand the seriousness of such an act and to help them develop greater sensitivity, tolerance, and respect," she said. "In addition, more rigorous review systems will be implemented to help prevent a similar occurrence in a future MVHS yearbook."
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.