Local School District Faces Federal Investigation After Allegations of Unchecked Antisemitism

Margery Smelkinson. Photo Courtesy.

Montgomery County Public Schools is facing a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education in response to allegations of unchecked antisemitism in the school system. The details set forth in the federal complaint that was filed came entirely from information contained in an op-ed published on MoCo360, a hyperlocal, online news site, by two individuals associated with the school district.

This investigation into the highly populated, diverse school district is one of two new investigations announced by the department’s Office of Civil Rights on Feb. 26 and becomes yet another investigation across the country over claims of antisemitism.
But the opinion piece’s actual authors had nothing to do with the federal complaint. Instead, unbeknownst to them, a non-Jewish conservative activist more than 200 miles away named Justin Samuels filed the complaint with the department and cited the op-ed as his evidence.

The writers of the op-ed, Margery Smelkinson, a Jewish parent with four kids in the school district, and Lisa R. Miller, a Jewish educator in the district, were unaware that the piece would be used to spark a federal investigation, but Smelkinson said she welcomed it as it might finally bring some long-awaited change.

She said that antisemitism had long been present in the school system even before Oct. 7, and that a group in which she’s deeply involved, the Maryland Jewish Alliance, has testified going back at least a year to the local Board of Education and written countless letters, but antisemitism still has not been duly addressed by the school district.

“We tried to do this diplomatically. But if a federal investigation is the only way for this to be resolved or for them to even hear us or deal with this, then this is how it has to be. How many more times can I ask people to write to the board or testify before the situation has to be elevated?” Smelkinson said.

Smelkinson and Miller cited multiple incidents of antisemitism in the Feb. 2 piece they wrote for MoCo360. In addition to the op-ed they wrote that was the basis for the federal complaint, Smelkinson and Miller also authored an opinion piece in the Washington Jewish Week on Feb. 15 titled “Jews Must Speak up Against MSCPS’s Skyrocketing Antisemitism.”

In their MoCo360 piece, they wrote that the district sent a “whispered and mealy-mouthed” message to families after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel; that administrators had condoned a pro-Palestinian student walkout laced with antisemitic chants; that some educators have suggested the attacks were fabricated; and that Jewish students have faced Holocaust denial and comments like “Hitler should have killed more Jews” from their peers.

The county has the largest Jewish population in the state; 10% of its residents, or around 100,000 people, are Jewish, according to some estimates.

Yet Samuels, a conservative screenwriter in New York, was the one who actually filed the complaint against Montgomery County’s district. The government opened its investigation on Feb. 26, according to a letter from the education department.

Both Smelkinson and Samuels said that currently the main solution the school system is employing to deal with antisemitism is an approach that requires the conflicting parties to sit in a room together and discuss the actions of the person accused of antisemitism and why it was harmful.

They both felt that this is not a deterrent from engaging in antisemitic behavior and that it does nothing to tangibly help the students victimized or punish the alleged offenders.

“If a federally funded organization doesn’t address that matter by disciplining the people using the offensive language or discipling the people who are harassing people because, in this case, they are Jewish, then they run afoul of the law and the feds can get involved,” Samuels said.

Samuels is Christian (he claims distant Sephardic Jewish ancestry) and says his larger goal in targeting campus antisemitism is to go after diversity, equity and inclusion programs, known as DEI.

The Montgomery County investigation is the third Samuels personally has triggered, after complaints at The New School in New York City and the University of California, Davis, neither of which he has any personal connection to. He has separately filed lawsuits at a number of institutions to challenge policies related to affirmative action and gender-based admissions: for example, he has sued Bryn Mawr College, the historic women’s school, for not admitting men.

Smelkinson also brought up DEI as something she would like to see changed as a result of the investigation, along with the introduction of better Holocaust education and training educators on antisemitism more thoroughly.

Her hopes are closely connected to the longstanding goals of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which has worked with MCPS for years dealing with what it called “struggles” with issues of antisemitism.

“There’s no doubt that MCPS is really struggling with antisemitism. There are some very serious issues that have been and will continue to be a huge challenge for the school system in terms of ensuring that students stop having to feel unsafe or insecure because they’re Jewish or expressing their Jewish identities in school,” Guila Franklin Siegel, JCRC’s associate director, said.

But Smelkinson said that in the end it’s important for Jews to speak up about the issues they’re facing, like she and Miller did in their op-eds, and not just brush these incidents aside, because that hasn’t accomplished anything.

“People now have an excuse to be antisemitic and it’s been normalized, and I just can’t be silent. There are a lot of people in the group [Maryland Jewish Alliance] that don’t even have kids in the public schools, but everyone should realize that what happens in the public schools ripples throughout every aspect of society,” Smelkinson said.

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