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US public schools took a stance on Israel-Hamas. The backlash was swift

<span>Photograph: Barry Williams for New York Daily News via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Barry Williams for New York Daily News via Getty Images

On 7 October, the day Hamas attacked Israel and the country began bombarding Gaza, the superintendent of the Los Angeles unified school district posted on social media: “We stand with Israel.”

Weeks later, the teacher’s union in Oakland, California, issued a statement. “The Israeli government created an apartheid state,” it read. “We unequivocally condemn the 75 year long illegal military occupation of Palestine.”

Related: Israeli diplomat pressured US college to drop course on ‘apartheid’ debate

Both statements were met with almost immediate backlash from the community – parents, teachers and even politicians – who either disagreed with the content of the announcements or were befuddled by why a local school district would take a position on a complex global conflict.

It’s not just California: in Massachusetts, two school district superintendents were lambasted for insufficiently calling out Hamas in the statements they issued shortly after the conflict began and a Minneapolis teachers union sparked controversy when it issued a statement calling for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and for a boycott of Israel.

Across the US, public schools have been taking stances on the war, often leading to more division than solidarity. Districts have repeatedly found themselves in hot water over their approaches.

While some of the statements lacked context or were issued prematurely, leading to retractions, the backlash is part of a nationwide politicization of the education sector, experts say, especially in kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) public school districts where school boards in recent years have become culture-war battlegrounds.

There is heightened attention and sensitivity in schools to all kinds of political issues right now

Jon Valant

“Over the past few years, schools have increasingly become sites of conflict,” said John Rogers, professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles who researches issues related to democracy, education, and inequality. “That has made schools more contentious spaces and education politics more partisan.”

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In some ways, what’s happening in K-12 schools reflects broader societal divisions over the Israel-Hamas war, whether it’s on college campuses, in workplaces, or in government. But experts say there are other dynamics at play in public schools that have set the stage for the uproar seen today.

In recent years, schools have come under attack by rightwing extremist organizations like Moms for Liberty that launch “conflict campaigns” to bring partisan debates into schools in order to sow distrust in public institutions, Rogers says. Usually they target lessons on racism or LGBTQ+ issues and encourage book bans. These groups exert most of their efforts in purple and blue districts – including in regions around Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area – experts say.

These groups aren’t fueling the school-based tensions around Israel and Gaza. But Rogers says their fringe methods have normalized the airing of political grievances in education.

Another factor lies in pandemic-era school closures, when classrooms were swiftly fettered to prevent the spread of Covid, said Jon Valant, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and director of its Brown Center for Education Policy. Unhappy with the pace of reopening and the institution of mask mandates, parents and community members showed up in school board meetings in unprecedented numbers to voice their grievances.

Schools have increasingly become sites of conflict ... That has made schools more contentious spaces and education politics more partisan

John Rogers

“What came out of it was a lot of parents getting frustrated and mobilized,” Valant said, adding that those same organizing methods spread to other issues.

From the racial reckoning following the 2020 murder of George Floyd to the implementation of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, schools have become “a magnet for any political controversy” in ways we haven’t seen before, he said: “There is heightened attention and sensitivity in schools to all kinds of political issues right now.”

Taken together, these factors have made it so that schools are struggling to generate productive discussions about complex issues. And they have put teachers and administrators on the defensive, leading some administrators to see official statements as ways of getting ahead of pressure from parents or community members.

As educators have been targeted for supposedly teaching “critical race theory” or advancing a “woke” agenda for supporting transgender students, amid school board fights, many teachers today are concerned about how bringing contentious topics into their curriculum may impact their own careers. “Teachers are generally not engaging because they’re also fearful of being reported,” said Andrene Castro, assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In Alameda county, for instance, one Palestinian American teacher expressed concerns that having her students read texts written by Palestinian authors could lead to repercussions.

But while decrying an incident for which there is a consensus of opinions, such as a mass shooting, can be straightforward, drawing a line in the sand regarding a contentious global conflict can rile people up, especially in districts with diverse student populations, explained Rogers. “Statements don’t work as well in climates where there are cross-cutting values or interests in the community,” he said.

Such is the case in Oakland, where school district officials have come to a head with teachers who have called for a teach-in focused on Palestinian history.

What’s more, in cases where schools or local governments bungled statements and had to issue retractions, their efforts to get out ahead of an issue spurred new problems. “There’s a need for a good deal of complex and nuanced understanding in order to contextualize the issue that sometimes educators will not have access to,” Rogers continued.

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For Ailen Arreaza, executive director of national education advocacy organization Parents Together, there is at least one binding thread when it comes to parents’ interests: student safety.

Arreaza says that in the weeks following 7 October, she heard from a number of parents who were concerned about the targeting of Jewish and Muslim students. (Days after the war began, a Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death in an alleged hate crime.) For these parents, Arreaza said, having access to practical resources about tolerance and bullying – not assertive political statements – was top of mind. “They just want their kids to be safe,” she said.

Teachers are generally not engaging because they’re also fearful of being reported

Andrene Castro

The chief concern for education experts is that the turmoil happening outside of the classroom directs resources away from the facilitation of critical conversations around Israel and Palestine within them.

“When you pretend like these things are not happening, students become disengaged,” said Castro, thinking back to 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy, was killed by a member of the neighborhood community watch in Florida. At the time, Castro was teaching high school in a diverse district. She said that the unspoken rule among her colleagues was not to bring the event into the classroom.

“There was a similar silence around it,” said Castro, explaining that while teachers avoided discussions about the killing, their Black and brown students wrestled with intense feelings and struggled to connect with the curriculum.

That’s why now is a critical time for educators to help students and communities work collectively towards an understanding.

“[Students] want to be able to make those connections. That’s where teachers are important,” said Castro.