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Objections over the Chappaqua School District’s curriculum on Israel and Gaza and sharp criticisms from representatives of an organization whose leader was ejected from school grounds last month led to a tension-filled Board of Education meeting last week.
Against the backdrop of last month’s terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel and simmering emotions in the community, several students and parents appealed to district officials that they or their children do not feel safe in school in the current environment.
It also occurs after a couple of anti-Semitic incidents have been reported at the school since last May, including one the week after the attacks in Israel.
Some parents expressed deep dissatisfaction with the district’s lessons introduced last month to middle school and high school students on the current situation in the Middle East, which they believe warrants expert guidance. On Oct. 30, a petition signed by about 450 district parents was submitted to administrators and the board airing concerns that the curriculum for the lessons on the Middle East is potentially biased. Parents learned after a Nov. 14 district webinar, the evening before last week’s board meeting, that the curriculum is from Brown University’s Choices Program.
Parent Dora Straus said the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America found that the Choices Program “promulgates biased, propagandistic and anti-Israel material.” She was one of a few speakers who also pointed out that Qatar Foundation International previously contributed money to the program.
Given the steep rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S., particularly on college campuses, making sure the information is credible is crucial, she said.
“Now this kind of thing is precisely the reason why over 450 of us – many of them are here tonight – signed a letter asking you to please have reputable people, a person or organization look at the sources that are given to students to make sure that they are unbiased, accurate with respect to history (and) fact and devoid of misstatements designed to promote an anti-Israel agenda.”
When reached by The Examiner last week, Choices Program Administrative Manager Christine Seguin issued a statement defending the program, saying that for more than 30 years it has provided carefully researched scholarship to help teachers address controversial subjects. Presenting multiple perspectives has always been a key element, so that students can learn to evaluate and develop their own conclusions, she said.
“Our materials also always focus on developing analytical skills so that students can engage thoughtfully and carefully with difficult topics and conflicting ideas,” Seguin stated. “We highly recommend that our curriculum materials be considered in their entirety – including readings, lesson plans, primary sources, and video content. It is in this full context that the value of teaching multiple perspectives can be best understood and evaluated.”
Parent Warren Gottlieb urged school officials to take steps to help the district navigate an extremely sensitive time in the community. Action should include forming an independent committee that would recommend a vendor or consultant to assist the district through the turbulence.
Officials should also explore whether the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative is contributing to anti-Semitism and called for the district to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, Gottlieb said.
“It’s too much to ask of you to solve this in-house. It really is,” he said.
Public comments on the Middle East curriculum came on the same evening that an attorney representing the head of the WESPAC Foundation, which describes itself as a progressive justice and social action organization, accused district officials of defaming and slandering its executive director, Nada Khader, when she was ordered off district grounds after having been invited to participate in the school’s Oct. 5 Community Expo.
The board announced at its meeting the following week that she and the organization had been banned from district grounds.
Robert Herbst, a civil rights attorney, charged that his client’s constitutional rights were violated and she was defamed and slandered. On Nov. 6, after a letter was sent to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Ackerman and the district’s lawyer, the ban was lifted, he said.
“We pointed out that because the superintendent and board failed to make any inquiry of her, they got their facts wrong and slandered her as an anti-Semite at the last public board meeting on Oct. 11, when, in fact, she’s a Palestinian-American with a Jewish grandmother and not one anti-Semitic bone in her body,” Herbst said.
Shortly afterward, parent Alonna Travin expressed outrage that the public was unaware that the ban had been lifted on WESPAC.
“The men here from WESPAC are defending a woman who told my son that he and his family were murderers and have the blood of Palestinian babies on their hands, and that was before the war started,” Travin said, referring to comments Khader allegedly made during the expo that contributed to the ban.
“We felt very comfortable and safe that they’d been banned from campus,” she continued. “I’m sickened that that’s been reversed. And you have not actually told the students and the public. Really gross and really wrong, Dr. Ackerman.”
When reached by The Examiner later in the week, Herbst denied his client made those comments. He also said criticism of Israel’s political and military policies is not anti-Semitic.
“It never happened, and there is evidence that school officials understood that accusation was not credible,” he said.
Herbst said litigation against the district “is a strong possibility” if the district can’t amicably resolve his client’s claims of constitutional violations.
After public comments, Ackerman acknowledged it is a difficult and challenging time for the district and community. The district is also trying to balance complex decisions while complying with state and federal laws.
“We’re working really hard to try to make sure that some of what we experienced in the last month doesn’t happen again,” Ackerman said. “I’m trying to do it the right way. I know it doesn’t feel right to the people in this audience and I understand that. “
“You have my commitment that we’re going to keep working hard together with you to change that, but it’s a process for us and it’s complicated and I know that some of you don’t feel it today, but your children are supported,” she also stated.
Board member Matt Auerbach said he would resign from the board if WESPAC members set foot on campus again, particularly after Herbst and two other representatives sat close to students who spoke during the meeting.
“You may have gotten one over tonight, you might have infiltrated our meeting, but I will, and everybody on this dais has my word, I will resign from the board effective immediately if WESPAC is ever allowed at a campus-sanctioned event again,” Auerbach said.
Throughout the public comments portion of the meeting board President Hilary Grasso repeatedly called on the audience to stop applauding speakers. After the close of the meeting, two New Castle police cars were outside of Horace Greeley High School where the meeting took place. None were present moments before the start of the meeting.
Correction: In the original posting of this article, it was incorrectly reported that the Oct. 30 letter and petition aired concerns about the Choices Program. While the petition addressed the issue of whether the Middle East curriculum in the Chappaqua School District was unbiased, the public didn’t learn until the Nov. 14 district webinar that the district was using the Choices Program. The Examiner regrets the error.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/