NATIONAL NEWS

K-12 school leaders reject allegations that they let antisemitism run rampant

May 7, 2024, 9:17 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Leaders of three large public school systems strongly denied allegations that they let antisemitism run rampant in their schools, telling a congressional panel Wednesday that they are fighting it with education and, when necessary, discipline.

As part of a series of hearings on antisemitism, a House Education and Workforce subcommittee sought testimony from leaders of the New York City Public Schools, the Berkeley Unified School District in California and the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

“Let me be clear — we do not shy away from imposing consequences for hateful behavior, including antisemitism,” said Karla Silvestre, the board president of the suburban Maryland school system.

The first of the antisemitism hearings to focus on K-12 education comes amid a wave of pro-Palestinian student protests that have washed across dozens of U.S. universities and a growing number of high schools.

The committee’s hearings have been heated, with the first one in December precipitating the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, the testimony of Columbia University’s president, Minouche Shafik, escalated into weeks of protests that spread well beyond her campus.

In an opening statement, Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., said antisemitism has become a “dominant force” in America’s schools, with students as young as second-graders “spewing Nazi propaganda.”

“You’ve been accused of doing nothing and turning a blind eye,” he said.

Chancellor David Banks from New York questioned whether the panel’s actions had brought schools any closer to address antisemitism on campuses.

“This convening, for too many people across America in education, feels like the ultimate ‘gotcha’ moment,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like people who are actually trying to solve for something that I believe we should be doing everything we can to solve for.”

Banks cited actions his district has taken, including student suspensions and employee terminations. But he also emphasized the role of education, saying the district is building a new curriculum on the contributions of the Jewish community, along with separate lessons about hate crimes and bias.

“We cannot simply discipline our way out of this problem,” Banks said. “The true antidote to ignorance and bias is to teach.”

Silvestre described a similar approach in Montgomery County. Classrooms have more lessons on the Jewish experience, and the district will now require “hate-based training” for all staff, she said. Teachers who don’t provide a safe learning environment “will not remain in Montgomery County public schools,” she said.

Each of the leaders acknowledged a rise in antisemitism, but Berkeley Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel denied that it has become “pervasive.” Since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, her district has received complaints of antisemitism arising from nine incidents within the district’s jurisdiction, she said.

“We take action to teach, correct and redirect our students,” she said. “We do not publish our actions because student information is private and legally protected under federal and state law. As a result, some believe we do nothing. This is not true.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., criticized Republicans for their focus on antisemitism in liberal school districts while ignoring statements by Donald Trump. In the latest example of the former president’s use of the language of Nazi Germany in his campaign rhetoric, Trump told Republican donors at his Florida resort last weekend that President Joe Biden is running a “Gestapo administration.”

“If my colleagues cared about antisemitism they would condemn and denounce these comments from the leader of their party,” Bonamici said in her opening remarks.

Echoing a tactic from the previous hearings, Republican lawmakers peppered the school leaders with questions about what they consider antisemitic. Asked if the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is antisemitic, all three generally said yes, though with some equivocation.

“It is if it is calling for the elimination of the Jewish people in Israel,” Ford Morthel said. “And I will also say that I recognize that it does have different meanings.”

Republicans demanded tougher consequences for teachers and principals accused of antisemitism. They repeatedly confronted Banks over the case of a high school principal who was reassigned but not fired after a chaotic student demonstration protesting a pro-Israel teacher.

Banks said it was “clearly an act of antisemitism,” and some students were suspended. The principal was removed from the school “for a lack of leadership” and moved to an administrative role.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, questioned that outcome, saying “we want results.”

“I’m hearing nice words, really nice words here: teaching, redirecting, directing,” Owens said. “What I’m missing is discipline, and I’m missing the word ‘fired.’”

Pressed on firings and suspensions, Silvestre said Montgomery County has taken “disciplinary action” against some teachers, but none has been fired. Bean suggested that wasn’t good enough: “So you allow them to continue to teach hate,” he said.

Banks seemed critical of how previous hearings had quickly been reduced to viral moments and video clips.

“I fundamentally believe that if we truly care about solving for antisemitism, you don’t do it through cheap political theater and cheap soundbites,” he said. “Putting a spotlight on any particular individual and sometimes trying to create gotcha moments and viral moments is not how you ultimately solve problems you deeply care about.”

Both New York City and Montgomery Public Schools are subjects of Education Department civil rights investigations into allegations of antisemitism. Both cases center on whether the districts responded to harassment of students in a manner consistent with Title VI, which prevents harassment based on shared ancestry.

In February, the Brandeis Center, a Jewish legal advocacy organization, filed a complaint with the department’s Office of Civil Rights, citing incidents of bullying and harassment of Jewish students in the Berkeley district, including one instance where the phrase “Kill Jews” was found written in a high school bathroom.

In a statement, Ford Morthel said she “did not seek this invitation” but would testify.

“Berkeley Unified celebrates our diversity and stands against all forms of hate and othering, including antisemitism and Islamophobia,” the statement said. “We strive every day to ensure that our classrooms are respectful, humanizing, and joyful places for all our students, where they are welcomed, seen, valued, and heard.”

All three districts, in predominantly liberal areas, have diverse student populations and a sizable Jewish American community.

In a lawsuit filed against Montgomery County Public Schools by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, three teachers alleged the district placed them on leave and investigated them because they expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments, some of which were on their personal social media pages.

Student-led Pro-Palestinian protests have taken place in high schools across the country, including in the three districts that will appear before Congress. The demonstrations include walkouts during school hours, and like their college counterparts, include the question of whether certain phrases — including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” which can mean widely different things to different groups — cross the line into antisemitism.

___

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

National News

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Butle...

Associated Press

Federal judge dismisses Trump classified documents case over concerns with prosecutor’s appointment

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal judge presiding over the classified documents case of former President Donald Trump in Florida has dismissed the prosecution because of concerns over the appointment of the prosecutor who brought the case. U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon granted the defense motion to dismiss the case on Monday. Lawyers for Trump had […]

8 minutes ago

FILE - Simone Biles and the U.S. women celebrate as the 2024 team is named at the United States Gym...

Associated Press

US Olympic fundraising team sets audacious goal of raising $500 million by 2028

The fundraising arm for the U.S. Olympic team is revving up a donation drive aimed at raising $500 million by the time the Summer Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028. Organizers rolled out the program Monday, hoping to use the momentum of this year’s Olympics, which begin July 26, to bring in funds for […]

36 minutes ago

A general view during rehearsals at the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum, Su...

Associated Press

The Latest: RNC set to begin in the aftermath of Trump assassination attempt

The Republican National Convention kicks off this week, with delegates and officials descending on Wisconsin amid the tumult that follows a Saturday assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump as he prepares to become the GOP’s official nominee. The quadrennial event takes place not only as Trump leads a party in lockstep behind him, but […]

2 hours ago

Work continues on the roof of Gaido's restaurant in preparation for opening for diners for the firs...

Associated Press

In beachy Galveston, locals buckle down without power after Beryl’s blow during peak tourist season

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — Vacuums sucked the water out of the seaside inn run by Nick Gaido’s family in Galveston since 1911 as power was still spotty nearly one week after a resurgent Hurricane Beryl swept into Texas. Blue tarp covered much of the torn off roof. Gaido scheduled cleanup shifts for the hotel and […]

9 hours ago

FILE - Balloons are hoisted to the ceiling in the Forum ahead of the 2024 Republican National Conve...

Associated Press

When does a presumptive nominee become a nominee? Here’s how Donald Trump will make it official

WASHINGTON (AP) — Monday 12:01 AM Nearly 2,500 delegates are gathering in Milwaukee this week for a roll call vote to select a the Republican presidential nominee, formally ending the presidential primary. It will be a moment lacking in suspense: Former President Donald Trump has already been the presumptive nominee for months, having clinched a […]

10 hours ago

Members of the Coalition to March on the RNC speak during a news conference ahead of the 2024 Repub...

Associated Press

GOP convention protests are on despite shooting at Trump rally

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Activists gathering in Milwaukee for the start of the Republican National Convention say the assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump won’t affect their long-standing plans to demonstrate outside the convention site this week. A diverse range of organizations and activists is expected outside the downtown Fiserv Forum. The largest expected demonstration […]

10 hours ago

K-12 school leaders reject allegations that they let antisemitism run rampant