School & District Management

Israel-Hamas War Poses Tough Questions for K-12 Leaders, Too

Three districts will appear before a House panel this week as protests roil college campuses.
By Mark Walsh — May 06, 2024 9 min read
Officers with the New York Police Department raid the encampment by pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University on April 30, 2024, in New York. The protesters had seized the administration building, known as Hamilton Hall, more than 20 hours earlier in a major escalation as demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war spread on college campuses nationwide.
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The Israel-Hamas war that is roiling U.S. college campuses is also creating conflict, albeit less turbulent, in pockets of K-12 education across the country.

Some high school students have walked out to join nearby campus protests in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. A walkout at a New Jersey high school was postponed after pushback from local elected officials. In the District of Columbia, a high school Arab-student group has sued over alleged censorship of its pro-Palestinian club activities on campus. But there have been no reports of student encampments or occupations of any K-12 buildings.

“High schools across the country should understand that students have a right to talk about controversial issues in school, even during the school day, as long as they are not disrupting the educational process or violating the rights of other students,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, which is representing the Arab Student Union at Jackson-Reed High School, a public school.

Meanwhile, some Jewish students and groups allege incidents or patterns of antisemitism by their classmates or teachers and inadequate responses by school administrators.

This week, the spotlight will shine on questions of antisemitism at the K-12 level when a U.S. House education subcommittee grills leaders of three school districts.

“Jewish teachers, students, and faculty have been denied a safe learning environment and forced to contend with antisemitic agitators due to district leaders’ inaction,” Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., the chairman of the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary, and secondary education, said in a statement. “This pervasive and extreme antisemitism in K-12 schools is not only alarming—it is absolutely unacceptable.”

The committee will hear from David Banks, the chancellor of the 915,000-student New York City school system; Karla Silvestre, the board president of the 160,000-student Montgomery County school district in Maryland, which is just outside the nation’s capital; and Enikia Ford Morthel, the superintendent of the 9,000-student Berkeley Unified School District in California.

Each district has had episodes of alleged antisemitic conduct since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. In the New York City borough of Queens, pro-Palestinian students allegedly rampaged through the halls of a high school after they learned a teacher had attended a pro-Israel rally. In Montgomery County, there have been numerous reports of schools being vandalized with antisemitic speech and symbols, including swastikas.

A federal complaint and much debate in a progressive city

As for Berkeley, two national groups have filed a lengthy complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, or OCR, alleging that school officials have not taken action to stop bullying and harassment of Jewish and Israeli students.

“Over the past four months, BUSD has knowingly allowed its K-12 campuses to become viciously hostile environments for Jewish and Israeli students,” says the Feb. 28 complaint filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, in Washington, and the Anti-Defamation League, in New York City.

The 32-page complaint includes numerous detailed allegations, including that students have directed antisemitic comments to their Jewish and Israeli classmates, that teachers have organized pro-Palestinian walkouts, and that administrators ignored complaints.

On Monday, the groups filed an expanded complaint, asserting that after the February filing, the “already hostile environment … took a turn for the worse,” with violent graffiti appearing on school grounds, cyberbullying of a student whose parent spoke out against antisemitism, and other incidents.

“We’re seeing a lot of bullying and harassment at the K-12 level that seems to be at least tolerated by administrators,” Marci Miller, a senior education specialist with the Brandeis Center, said in an interview. “The perpetrators aren’t being punished.”

In the Berkeley district’s only public comment on the OCR complaint, Ford Morthel said in a March 29 community message that “we take these and all complaints very seriously.”

“I want to again affirm that BUSD schools and classrooms must be spaces that are welcoming and humanizing,” the superintendent said. “I believe that being a diverse community dedicated to Equity and Inclusion requires deep listening and ongoing reflection—curiosity, compassion, and courage. As such, we do not consider this OCR complaint as an adversarial process but rather an opportunity to further examine our practices, procedures, and policies, ensuring compliance with federal laws and that we truly are advancing the district’s mission and values.”

The OCR complaint and debates over teaching about the Israel-Hamas conflict have been a source of regular public comment at Berkeley school board meetings, with some pro-Palestinian students and teachers pushing back against charges of antisemitism.

Xaro Kaufman, a senior at Berkeley High School who identified herself as Jewish, said at a March 6 meeting for which video is posted on the district’s website, “Make no mistake, if you are currently uncomfortable with your teachers and peers being pro-Palestine, it is not because they are antisemitic. It is because your views on Israel cloud your ability to see the genocide which is being committed.”

Speaking at the same meeting, Christina Harb, a Palestinian-American teacher at Berkeley High, said: “This is a war, clearly, on Palestine’s entire existence, and a parallel war is happening right here in our district. ... A small group of very entitled parents who are uncomfortable with the reality of what’s happening, are trying to conflate the issue of Palestine with the issue of antisemitism, undermining the seriousness of both issues.”

Students walk out, or try to, in several places

Elsewhere around the country, students have engaged in walkouts to join pro-Palestinian college campus demonstrations and encampments. In Chicago, several hundred secondary school students marched to the University of Chicago on May 1 to show support for Palestinians in Gaza. A few days earlier, in Austin, Texas, several hundred high school students walked out of classes to join demonstrations at the University of Texas flagship campus.

Aaron Terr, the director of public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said the recent conflicts have been reminders to school administrators that students in public schools have First Amendment rights “that follow them into school.”

“Students in school are free to speak, hand out fliers, and wear expressive clothing, as long as it doesn’t disrupt school,” he said. “Walkouts are another matter. Schools can punish for walkouts if they substantially disrupt school or if they are in violation of school attendance policies.”

Some student groups get pre-approval for walkouts, and sometimes administrators show leniency for short-term walkouts, Terr said. It isn’t clear whether recent walkouts have led to school discipline.

At Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees Township, N.J., students were planning a walkout in support of a ceasefire late last month. But local public officials, including one who has expressed strong support for Israel, voiced concerns about the plan, including that it was scheduled at the same time as the Jewish holiday of Passover. Some walkout organizers have expressed the view that they were censored, and three students have said they were suspended after clashing with the principal over the plan.

“That example looks pretty concerning,” said FIRE’s Terr, adding that the cancellation “would implicate the First Amendment.”

Conflict over a documentary film and club activities

In the lawsuit involving the Arab Student Union at Jackson-Reed High School in Washington, the club’s members allege that administrators have kept them from holding the same kind of activities that other recognized student clubs promote.

The school barred the club from showing a documentary critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, canceled the club’s Palestinian Culture Night, prohibited the students from distributing literature that depicted Palestinian cultural symbols, and barred the club from handing out stickers that read “Free Palestine,” the suit filed in federal district court alleges.

“That kind of non-disruptive communication is protected by the First Amendment inside a public high school,” said Spitzer, the ACLU lawyer representing the club. Although the club was eventually allowed to have its Palestinian Culture Night last month, the suit seeks an injunction allowing the club to hold another such night before the school year is out and to show the documentary “The Occupation of the American Mind” to any Jackson-Reed students willing to watch it at a club event, he said.

“The fact that some speech may make some people uncomfortable is not a reason to say it is not protected,” Spitzer said. “Making people who disagree with you feel bad is what the First Amendment is all about sometimes.”

In a declaration filed in court late Monday, Jackson-Reed High Principal Sah Brown said the Arab Student Union did not seek his permission in advance to show “The Occupation of the American Mind” at one of its meetings.

Brown said he viewed the film, a 2016 documentary that asserts that Israel has engaged in information warfare over longtime conflict in the region.

“Based on my review, I concluded that the film seemed likely to cause division among students, families, and faculty on this volatile issue, especially in light of the film’s messaging, which has been referred to as antisemitic,” the principal said in his declaration.

In an accompanying brief, the District of Columbia argues that granting an injunction to the student club over the multiple expressive activities “would subvert the vitally important job that school principals have in making reasonable determinations to keep schools safe and orderly.”

(The ACLU later said the Arab Student Union withdrew its request for an emergency injunction after reaching an “interim agreement” with the Jackson-Reed High School administration. The agreement allows the group to show one of three other films about Palestine instead of “The Occupation of the American Mind.” The club will also be able to distribute an educational handout about Palestinian culture and the administration will email all faculty to make clear that standards about student events and distribution of materials apply equally to all groups.)

Gretchen Brion-Meisels, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who teaches courses on youth voice, youth participation, and school culture and climate, says K-12 students who are becoming active in the debate over the Israel-Hamas conflict are seeking outlets to have intelligent discussions and share their views.

“High school students, like all students, deserve places and spaces where their voices can be heard, and also supports and structures for having complex dialogue across perspectives,” she said. “Students deserve access to the complex histories of the lands that they inhabit. Restrictions on whose histories are told, and in whose voices, undermine young people’s capacity to engage in democratic dialogue.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2024 edition of Education Week as Israel-Hamas War Poses Tough Questions for K-12 Leaders, Too

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