School districts grapple with surge of activism following Israel-Hamas conflict

Student and teacher activism is prompting education leaders to navigate a politically divisive environment as protests sweep the nation and globe in response to the Israel-Hamas war. At the K-12 level, reported protests have predominantly called for a cease-fire or expressed solidarity with Palestine.

On Thursday, numerous students from New York City classrooms participated in a walkout demanding a cease-fire. The Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, expressed its support for the walkout on social media. 

The community received a response from Chancellor David Banks. According to an email shared with K-12 Dive by New York City Public Schools, Banks stated, “In this challenging moment, when so many in our communities have deeply held personal views about various aspects of the Israel-Hamas war, the question can arise as to where the line lies between our responsibilities as public school district employees, and our personal lives and views.”

Banks emphasized the importance of employees “keeping expressions of their political views separate from their NYCPS job” and ensuring that they do not give the impression that they are speaking officially. He mentioned that employees can freely express their personal views outside of work as long as it does not disrupt the school.

However, the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement on social media warning that “attempting to restrict teachers’ and staff members’ political speech — especially speech that occurs outside the workplace — is often an overreach and can hinder peaceful debate and discussion.” 

In an email on Friday, Wesley Hedgepeth, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, affirmed that “teachers possess First Amendment rights outside of the classroom, just like any other individual.”

Students from New York City Public Schools walked out of classrooms on Nov. 9 to protest the Israel-Hamas war, as part of protests sweeping the nation and globe.
Retrieved from Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM) on November 13, 2023
 

Hedgepeth further emphasized that educators should serve as models of informed civic action for their students. However, he cautioned that teachers may face consequences, including job loss, if they violate school rules. Hedgepeth, who previously taught at a public school and now teaches social studies at a private school in Virginia, shared these thoughts in an email.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of a planned walkout by students at Alexandria City High School in Virginia, Executive Principal Alexander Duncan III sent a message to staff and families. Duncan assured them that high school administrators and central office staff were prepared to ensure that the walkout would be conducted safely and respectfully, as mentioned in a note on Nov. 8

Last month, students in the San Francisco Bay Area participated in a “Walk Out for Gaza,” which raised concerns among some members of the local Jewish community. 

“We are extremely concerned about this action, its messaging, and its impact on the safety and sense of belonging of Jewish students,” expressed a letter addressed to the San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Matt Wayne and the school board. “Our Jewish students and families are vulnerable and need reassurance that they belong here.”

The letter, sent by the Russian-speaking Jewish Community of SF Bay Area, urged Wayne to prevent staff and teachers from participating in or promoting the protest.

In a public announcement, Wayne clarified on Oct. 17, the day before the planned walkout, that while the district supports students’ right to express their views peacefully, the walkout itself is not an official SFUSD activity.

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