Public School Leaders Across US Are Grilled by Congress on Antisemitism

(Bloomberg) -- US lawmakers grilled public school leaders over their handling of antisemitism, the latest in a series of hearings on the matter that have already led to the resignation of two college presidents.

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“There have been unacceptable incidents of antisemitism in our schools,” David Banks, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest public school district, told lawmakers Wednesday. “When it comes to rooting out antisemitism, our public schools must be part of the answer.”

Banks fielded questions from members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce alongside Karla Silvestre, president of the Board of Education at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District in California.

Each district has grappled with incidents of antisemitism and is under investigation by the US Department of Education for civil rights violations since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The nation’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 35,000 people, according to the the Hamas-run health ministry. Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by the US and the European Union.

A dozen New York public school staffers have been removed or disciplined for their behavior and at least 30 students have been suspended, Banks said. The city’s school system has seen about 280 bias incidents reported since the war began, with about 42% of them antisemitic and 30% Islamophobic, he said.

Banks was asked specifically about a protest last November at his alma mater, the Hillcrest High School in Queens, where students staged an unruly protest and intimidated a Jewish teacher who made a post on social media in support of Israel.

Banks said the students who led that effort “clearly” engaged in an act of antisemitism and that “a number” of then had been suspended as a result. He said the school’s principal had been removed.

The DOE opened an investigation into the Berkeley Unified School District after a group filed a complaint alleging the district ignored “severe and persistent” bullying of Jewish students, according to a release from the Anti-Defamation League. Several other school districts, including Montgomery County Public Schools and New York City schools, are under scrutiny for Title VI discrimination involving shared ancestry.

The Berkeley superintendent told the committee Wednesday that her school district had received nine formal complaints and taken action, but that student and personnel disciplinary records are private, and as a result, “some believe we do nothing” to address antisemitism, she said.

Despite those incidents, “antisemitism is not pervasive in Berkeley Unified School District,” Ford Morthel said.

The leaders were also asked about their curricula. At Berkeley, teachers created a lesson plan after Oct. 7th, while Banks shared details about mandatory Holocaust education. He said he plans to implement a new curriculum that will teach the whole of Jewish history, which will be ready in a year.

The House Committee has previously held two hearings with university leaders about antisemitism on college campuses, which led in part to the resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Leaders from Northwestern University, Rutgers University and the University of California at Los Angeles have been called to testify later this month.

--With assistance from Janet Lorin and Brendan Walsh.

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