Amid Teacher Suspensions, Antisemitism Remains an Issue at Local Public Schools

Guila Franklin Siegal. Photo Courtesy

Four Montgomery County Public School teachers remain on administrative leave with pay as investigations concerning whether their social media posts violated school policy continue.
The teachers are employed at Takoma Park, Tilden, Argyle and Westland middle schools.

Their posts all involved anti-Israel, antisemitic and/or pro-Palestinian comments and cartoons.

According to the district’s Employee Code of Conduct, everyone must “Conduct your private life activities (including social media activities) in a manner that is not prejudicial to your effectiveness as an MCPS employee and recognize that criminal, dishonest, and other inappropriate activities may have an adverse impact on your employment with MCPS.”

The policy specifically states that school district rules apply online as well as in school. The rules state that employees shouldn’t “engage in conduct that is rude or disrespectful, use vulgar language or racial slurs, or post materials that are inflammatory, defamatory, offense, harassing or indecent.” Also forbidden is posting or forwarding unsubstantiated rumors.

In one post, a Tilden world studies teacher and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team member, wrote, “Debunked!! No music festival attack. Babies were not burned. Women were not violated. Hospitals were attacked on purpose.”

In another post, she wrote, “Palestinians are being killed and their organs are being sold. How is real life scarier than movies??”

Several rallies have been held in front MCPS’s Carver Education Building in Rockville. Some featured protestors claiming the teachers’ right to free speech was violated. Other protesters rallied in support of MCPS’ policy, claiming the issue is about the school’s social media policy and not politics.

On Jan. 5, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington issued a petition, urging people to “let MCPS know our community appreciates that these actions are being taken seriously and that they are conducting thorough investigations to ensure students are not being academically or emotionally harmed.”

The petition also states that “an MCPS employee’s free speech rights must be balanced with our students’ and other school personnel’s right to learn and work in safe and secure environments free from disruption of learning.”

The JCRC wants people to sign the petition “to thank MCPS for its swift intervention to temporarily remove these teachers from classrooms; support MCPS’ ongoing efforts to thoroughly investigate each situation prior to making any decision on reinstatement; and urge all MCPS educators to ensure students of all backgrounds and faiths are treated with dignity, fairness, tolerance, and respect.”

Guila Franklin Siegel, JCRC associate director, said, “It’s unfortunate. I don’t think the welfare of the students is being taken into consideration.”

There has been antisemitic graffiti and bullying at MCPS for many years, but it has greatly increased since the Oct. 7 invasion of Israel by Hamas, Franklin Siegel said.

On the third day back from winter break, a swastika was found in front of Kingsview Middle School in Germantown as staff and students were arriving to start the school day.

Montgomery County schools, while experiencing “the most” incidents, is not the outlier, Franklin Siegel said.

Jewish students in Arlington County, Virginia, “have been harassed, bullied and marginalized in the classroom,” she said.

In Washington, D.C., the JCRC met with officials at Jackson-Reed High School and helped convince the school not to show the film “The Occupation of the American Mind,” which is narrated by Roger Waters.

“There are about a thousand different movies you could pick to trigger a nuanced passionate conversation. That movie is not one of them,” Franklin Siegel said. “It does not promote critical thinking. It’s a very poor choice.”

An Arab student club at the high school asked to show the film, which was denied, at least in part because of the JCRC meeting with the school’s principal, who did watch the film.
The JCRC has been dealing with so many incidents of antisemitism that it recently expanded its education staff.

Meanwhile, a newly formed group called Montgomery County Jewish Parents Coalition is working to increase representation on school boards and at meetings, to “spread awareness on the topic of antisemitism.”

Lisa Miller, a 25-year employee with MCPS who is currently a staff development teacher, strongly supports the district’s investigation of the four teachers.

“They are sending a ‘we don’t tolerate this’ kind of message,” she said, adding, “This isn’t about pro-Palestinian views. This is blatant antisemitism.”

While some believe MCPS is only now enforcing its social media policy, that policy has been around for many years. “It needed to be enforced because people were abusing it. It was never a problem before,” she said.

“I think it’s easier to go behind social media, and go behind your screen and lash out,” she said. “I think it’s a modern-day antisemitism.”

“The policy hasn’t changed. It’s always been this way,” she said, noting that at the beginning of every school year, the staff is reminded of it.

While she feels comfortable at Pine Crest Elementary School in Silver Spring, she said, “I’ve spoken to teachers [in other MCPS schools] who don’t want to wear their Jewish stars.”

Miller recently had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post, in response to a Dec. 21 article about the four teachers. She wrote, “The suspensions were a result of a clear violation of MCPS’s social media conduct policy. The educators are on leave with pay, adhering to the guidelines set by the teachers union.”

Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.

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