The recent antisemitic incidents at Montgomery County Public Schools started long before the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel.
Swastikas and words of hate often are found carved on desks, written across bathroom mirrors and even once on the outdoor welcome sign at Whitman High School.
“This is a school district that was struggling with antisemitism even before Oct. 7, so it is inevitable that we were going to see a huge spike,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
“Every week it gets more intense in the schools. Every week the war goes on, the negativity of these incidents just gets worse,” she said.
Students at multiple high schools have staged walk-outs, leaving their building for one period carrying signs and chanting slogans in support of the Palestinians. On Nov. 17, students at Northwood High could be heard saying, “Biden, Biden, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.”
But what seems to be most upsetting to parents is the lack of support and empathy from administrators and Board of Education members.
“They never get a response. It’s like their emails are going into a black hole,” Franklin Siegel said, noting some parents really want “communication that is grounded in empathy and cultural competency.”
Three days after the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, MCPS put out a community message stating, “Our heartfelt thoughts are with our students and their families, who may be experiencing the impact of the deeply disturbing and tragic violence in Israel and Gaza in a variety of ways.”
The statement continued, “Our schools must be welcoming, safe, and secure places for all students.”
The JCRC and Anti-Defamation League in D.C. criticized the message, noting that while some school principals understood the importance of dealing with the issue, MCPS did not.
“We reserve our greatest anger and disappointment for Montgomery County Public Schools. MCPS’ senior management has consistently ignored our agencies’ urgent appeals over the last three days to respond appropriately and sensitively to the large Jewish community in the district, insisting instead that principals alone shoulder the burden of a public response,” the two organizations wrote in a shared news release.
The MCPS statement was “inadequate,” according to officials from the two organizations. They called it “weak, carefully worded statements that prioritized a perceived need for even-handedness over truth, authenticity, and compassion. Make no mistake, there are not two sides to this tragedy – there is no way to justify Hamas’ war crimes and unconscionable atrocities,” according to the JCRC and ADL statement.
Then Sabrina Khan-Williams, a world studies teacher and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team leader at Tilden Middle School, was placed on administrative leave after posting on X, formerly known as Twitter, “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??”
Christopher Cram, MCPS Director of the Office of Communications, said he could not comment further as it is a personnel matter. MCPS is conducting an investigation.
Tilden Middle School Principal Sapna Hopkins wrote to school families on Nov. 13, “to address the online posts made by a staff member at our school.”
She noted, “We strive to be a No Place for Hate school. It is evident from recent events that we are not there yet.”
Alexis Robbins, who has a daughter at Tilden, called the teacher’s post “despicable.” She and four Israeli parents who also have students there went to Tilden around 7:30 a.m. the first day of school after they learned about the posts.
Their goal was to ensure that Khan-Williams would not even be in the building. She was pleased that Principal Sapna Hopkins met with them immediately and “had a very open and honest conversation.”
Before that meeting, Robbins had emailed Hopkins, the superintendent and Board of Education members, and wrote of the atrocities that befell Israelis at the hands of Hamas terrorists. “This being said, I could not believe a Tilden Middle School teacher would post that these events did not happen. This is a person who I am trusting to educate my children.”
Robbins also wrote, “I do not want her teaching one more thing to any child in MCPS as she should have her teaching license revoked.”
Because of this and other antisemitic incidents, the JCRC invited families whose students attend schools in the Walter Johnson High School cluster, which includes two middle schools and six elementary schools, to a meeting to discuss the current situation.
Almost 200 people, including BOE President Karla Silvestre, BOE member Julie Yang and County Councilmember Kate Stewart, participated in the virtual meeting, which was not open to the media.
“It was huge, and I knew it would be, because people are upset. It lasted 90 minutes and it could have been longer,” Franklin Siegel said.
Those on the Zoom call had a good, honest and open conversation, Franklin Siegel said. “The most overwhelming feeling they had, they said no one was listening to them. They were not being heard.”
District officials could be doing all the right things, but if they are not communicating that to parents, “It has no impact,” she said.
The parents agreed that what is needed is education on the Holocaust, American Jews and Jewish history.
When the conversation turned to the incident with the teacher at Tilden, “I don’t think you could underestimate the triggering effect,” Franklin Siegel said. “Her post seemed to reflect a complete hatred of Jews.”
As for the families, “There’s worry, there’s fear, there’s anger,” she said.
Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.