Philadelphia students, educators, parents demand protection for students and educators who express pro-Palestinian views

A large group of people protest outside a large stone building. Some people are wearing keffiyehs, holding signs and Palestinian flags.
Students, educators, and parents gathered at a pro-Palestinian rally organized by Philly Educators for Palestine outside the Philadelphia School District building on Thursday. (Emily Rizzo for Chalkbeat)

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More than 100 pro-Palestinian educators, parents, students, and activists briefly brought Philadelphia’s monthly Board of Education meeting to a halt on Thursday, when they demanded the board and Superintendent Tony Watlington address claims that the district censored a student project about Palestinian art at a public high school.

“You cannot continue to not allow us to speak about genocide,” Hazel Heiko, a Northeast High School student told board members. “We see the reality on our phones. All of us have access to it. And that does not stop even though you are not allowing us to talk about it in school.”

(Israel has been accused of genocide in an international court following its retaliation against Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on the country. Israeli leaders have vehemently rejected that allegation)

Over the last few months, the district’s decision to remove a student video podcast episode about Palestinian art has elicited rapidly heightening protests and community outcry at monthly board meetings. Some pro-Israel groups and Jewish families have claimed the student project — which was shared at a school assembly and made no mention of Jewish people — promoted antisemitism by inferring that Palestinian people are resisting oppression by Jewish people. As a result, students at Northeast High School said they have been doxxed, targeted online, and have felt censored in their school hallways.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is also investigating a claim by hundreds of Jewish parents that there have been multiple incidents of antisemitism at schools across the city.

Heiko was one of several students who appealed to Watlington and the board members on Thursday asking that the district offer support to them and their teacher, Keziah Ridgeway. They said Ridgeway has since received threats for assigning the broader project about indigenous people using art as an act of resistance in the face of oppression and for speaking out about the censorship issue online.

“We will not always be in school,” Heiko said. “We will not always be young, we need to learn now, when we do have the opportunity to, how to talk about uncomfortable things.”

Three elected officials also testified in solidarity with the students and protestors.

Watlington addressed the speakers late Thursday night asking for a “little bit of grace,” and said the district is attempting to support teachers.

“We do not condone or tolerate antisemitism. We don’t support, condone, or tolerate Islamophobia,” he said.

“There are times where there are tough issues which some of us have to learn to sit in discomfort. That is just a fact,” Watlington said. “Our job is to help children think critically, not to tell them what to think,” and to create classroom environments “where diverse points of view can be brought in a way that we don’t censor people, in a way that we don’t demonize people who believe something different than we do.”

As the students testified, dozens rallied outside the district building’s front doors and many were barred from entering the building. One parent and one educator interrupted the meeting and demanded that the board take a recess until all members of the public who wanted to enter the building could attend the meeting. The board took a brief pause before resuming the scheduled meeting and voting to adopt the district’s final $4.5 billion budget.

Protests have been steadily growing at schools across the country as students and educators grapple with how to engage with the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Students in particular have been seeking spaces within their schools to discuss their thoughts and perspectives but have been met with hesitation by some educators and school leaders wary of the rising incidents of Islamophobia and antisemitism both in-person and online.

Philly Educators for Palestine, the group that organized Thursday’s rally, is circulating a petition with a list of demands for the school district including: The district must “condemn the ongoing genocide waged on Palestinian people,” offer support to Palestinian students and families, facilitate the teaching of Palestinian history, and provide professional development that highlights diverse perspectives.

The petition has garnered over 700 signatures from staff, students, parents, and community stakeholders.

Ahmed Moor, a Palestinian parent in the district, also urged board members to take disciplinary action against the Northeast High School teacher who shared photos of the student podcast project and photos of the students themselves online, claiming the individual violated students’ rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

“Our children must have their rights protected,” Moor said.

Community members inside and outside the board meeting spoke out against alleged censorship of people advocating for the rights of Palestinians within the school district.

“I’ve watched with my own eyes my teacher be told she can’t support people in Palestine,” said Lev, a fifth grade student at Masterman School. “Me, as a person who openly supports Palestine, is basically being passively told that my beliefs are wrong.”

Parents and students also called for the district to make space for conversations about Palestine in the classroom.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, Lev’s parent and lead organizer of Rabbis for Ceasefire, demanded the district “prepare and encourage [students] to embody the belief that’s inherent in Jewish tradition and all religious tradition — that every single life is a life of sanctity.”

Ed Brockenbrough, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, told board members the district must provide teachers with professional development on how to address conflicts like the war in Gaza in their classrooms.

“At a time when schools across the nation are struggling to find enough teachers, especially Black and brown teachers,” Brockenbrough said, “efforts to silence” Black teachers like Keziah Ridgeway at Northeast High School “must be seen as an attack on racial and educational justice” in the district and city at large.

Standing in front of the district’s headquarters, 11th grade student Samirah Munjin held a watermelon sign with the word “ceasefire” on it. Thursday’s rally was the second protest she’s ever attended. She came with members of Collective Climb, a restorative justice program for West Philadelphia teenagers.

“I think it’s really frustrating to constantly feel that you need to censor yourself about something that’s hurting you and people who look Iike you,” Munjin said. “I think that in a school we should be allowed to speak up about what’s affecting us and be supported by the people who get paid to support us.”

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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