Police are investigating swastikas and racial slurs spray-painted behind Ketchikan elementary school

school on a hill
Houghtaling Elementary School. (KRBD file photo)

Swastikas, racial slurs and genitalia were spray-painted on a pavilion at Houghtaling Elementary School in Ketchikan over the weekend. It’s the third prominent incident of hateful and racist vandalism near a Ketchikan school in the past six months.

Stephanie Patton says she was walking her dog behind Houghtaling Elementary School Sunday morning when she came across the graffiti. It stopped her in her tracks.

“It made me just feel sick to my stomach — seriously, I wanted to throw up,” she said in an interview. “It was extremely disturbing.”

Spray-painted across the walls of the A-frame shelter were swastikas, racial slurs, genitalia and profanities. She’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and she said the Nazi imagery hit home.

“My heart sunk when I saw the swastikas, because I know that a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses were thrown in concentration camps and killed,” she said. “It hits me very much in the center of my heart.”

Ketchikan police say they are working the case.

Acting deputy police chief Andy Berntson saidofficers visited the elementary school on Sunday.

“They seized some evidence and are currently investigating that case,” he said by phone.

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It’s the third prominent incident of hateful graffiti near a school in the past six months. In April, vandals left racist, antisemitic and homophobic symbols on a trail and skatepark near Schoenbar Middle School. Less than a week later, an 11-foot-wide swastika appeared on South Tongass Highway near Fawn Mountain Elementary School.

Berntson said it’s not clear if they’re connected.

“We don’t know if those were related or not,” he said. “And to the best of my knowledge, because one would have been a trooper case, no one’s been charged in those cases.”

State troopers handle cases outside city limits, like the South Tongass swastika. A spokesperson confirmed no suspects have been arrested.

Berntson said, for now, the police department isn’t treating it as a hate crime. The FBI says a hate crime is “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

“I think you’d need to articulate some frame of mind. These things are generally done by younger people … they’re looking to get a reaction,” he said. “Certainly there’s some racial and ethnic slang involved, as well as some inappropriate sexual content, and so, yeah, we don’t want to jump to any conclusions.”

But Patton, the dog walker, is concerned  police aren’t taking the hateful vandalism seriously.

“Yeah, I don’t think they’re focusing on it enough at all,” she said. “I think there needs to be some accountability, yeah — charges filed, something needs to happen. If there’s no punishment, then it’s going to keep on happening.”

This comes as federal authorities say they’ve stepped up efforts nationwide to encourage residents to report hate crimes. Anchorage-based FBI spokesperson Chloe Martin said she can’t speak specifically about the spate of vandalism in Ketchikan, but she says the agency wants anyone with tips to come forward.

“The FBI still wants to know about hate incidents, that’s something that we want reported so that we can evaluate it, even if it doesn’t necessarily rise to the threshold of a federal hate crime,” she said. “You never know if it could be tied to another incident.”

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