Feds to investigate Teaneck school district for antisemitism

Feds to investigate Teaneck school district for antisemitism

A youth-led interfaith dialogue is held at Teaneck High School to discuss the Middle East on November 5, 2023. (Aristide Economopoulos for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A youth-led interfaith dialogue is held at Teaneck High School to discuss the Middle East on November 5, 2023. (Aristide Economopoulos for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into the Teaneck public school system, which has come under fire for what Jewish parents allege is an antisemitic climate since Oct. 7.

The case at Teaneck Public Schools, a diverse district in a heavily Jewish town, adds to a growing slate of federal Title VI civil rights investigations involving alleged discrimination against Jewish or Arab students in the months since Hamas attacked Israel. Other investigations have been opened at universities and K-12 school districts across the country.

The education department does not say why it has opened an investigation. In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the school district declined comment on the investigation for privacy reasons but noted that “all such manners are addressed appropriately.

“We do not tolerate any harassment, bullying, or intimidation, and thoroughly investigate any reports of this type of behavior,” district spokesperson Connie Le continued in the statement.

Teaneck, which has significant Jewish and Muslim populations living in unusually close proximity, has been divided since Oct. 7. “I have been here for 35 years, and I have never seen this type of tension,” Noam Sokolow, the proprietor of Noah’s Ark, a kosher deli, told the Washington Post in November, shortly after debate over a resolution condemning Hamas divided the town’s governance committee, spurred skirmishes, and led to the resignation of most members of a municipal inclusion committee.

The tensions rippled through the local school district starting with the superintendent’s response to Hamas’s attack on Israel, continuing with a contentious board meeting at which Jewish speakers say they were unfairly silenced, and culminating in a pro-Palestinian student walkout about which administrators sent mixed communications.

“I think that the superintendent’s actions, the first letter that he wrote, and the fact that he allowed this walkout where there was hate speech on school grounds, it shows a complete lack of understanding about what antisemitism is,” Hillary Kessler-Godin, a Jewish parent who filed a Title VI complaint against the district, said.

Local Jewish leaders, including rabbis and officials at the Jewish federation, encouraged parents to file the complaints with the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Naomi Knopf, chief impact officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said she didn’t know which complaint the department took up in its investigation. But she said the federation was heartened that an inquiry had been opened.

“Jewish Federation is very pleased that the Department of Education is taking these incidents seriously,” Ms. Knopf said. “The rights of Jewish students matter just as much as everyone else’s, and it’s our job and the federal government’s job to make sure that all students have access to a safe educational environment.”

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on criteria including “shared ancestry.” The department, which does not comment on active investigations, focuses its inquiries on whether the school should have done more to protect students. It has said that opening an investigation does not mean the complaint has merit.

Days after the Oct. 7 attack, Teaneck’s school superintendent, Andre Spencer, emailed out a message of support that did not include mention of Israel, Hamas, or terrorism, instead using such phrases as “unfortunate situation,” which Jewish parents felt to be inappropriately bland and lacked any specificity about the situation.

At a subsequent school board meeting, Jewish parents and community members who attempted to describe the barbarity of the Hamas attacks were shut down, with the school board informing them that there were children present. The same board did not stop speakers who used in some cases identical language to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, prompting a complaint by the free-speech group FIRE.

Tensions came to a head in November, when the superintendent appeared to at first endorse a planned student “walkout for Palestine.”

“It is essential to recognize that our scholars have the First Amendment right to express themselves,” Spencer wrote in an initial communication about the walkout.

Local rabbis, responding to the walkout organizers’ allegation that Israel was committing “genocide” in Gaza, issued a statement opposing the demonstration, calling it “grotesque and overt antisemitism” and a “blood libel.” Hundreds of local Jews — including several Orthodox community leaders with no children in the district — organized a pro-Israel rally the night before the walkout. (Most but not all Jewish parents in Teaneck send their children to Jewish day schools.)

After the criticism, Spencer issued a second statement condemning antisemitism and noting that any students who participated would be given zeros for the classes they missed. About 100 students ultimately walked out.

Another Title VI civil rights investigation was announced this week at Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Orange County, California. A district representative did not disclose details of the investigation to JTA, citing student privacy concerns, but said in a statement, “Unequivocally, our school district condemns all forms of discrimination and does not tolerate this kind of behavior on our school campuses.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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