Teachers, students protest suspension of educators who shared pro-Palestinian views

By Nicole Asbury December 20, 2023 at 1:08 a.m. EST Washington Post

Students and educators in a protest Tuesday evening called on Montgomery County Public Schools to reinstate teachers who were placed on administrative leave for sharing pro-Palestinian sentiments.

About 50 people rallied by the entrance to the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville, which houses the county board of education, while a meeting was taking place inside. They chanted, “Reinstate our teachers now.”F

After an hour of listening to speakers, organizers walked over to the building’s front doors and chanted, “B-O-E, you can’t hide.” Some of them started booing and blowing whistles as they slammed their fists against the building’s front doors.

Several school systems across the country have struggled to figure out how to respond to teachers and students who want to talk or raise awareness about the Israel-Gaza war as they are also experiencing a rise in hate incidents targeting Jewish and Muslim students. The Montgomery school system — Maryland’s largest, with about 160,000 students — placed one teacher on administrative leave for writing in her work email signature: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The teacher has since filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged discrimination and is receiving legal support from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. At least three others have been suspended for posts made on their personal social media accounts.

Schools shut down some students, teachers who comment on the Gaza war

The posts have varied in nature. In one account, screenshots show a teacher at Tilden Middle School in Bethesda falsely stating that the attack at a music festival on Oct. 7 was a hoax. A different teacher at Takoma Park Middle School who was placed on leave reshared a post that read: “A shout out to bus operators at Dulles who refused to transport Zionists to the pro Israel rally. Their solidarity with the victims of Israeli genocide should be commended.”

Organizers for Tuesday’s demonstration argued that the school system’s disciplinary action violated the teachers’ First Amendment rights. They say the school system didn’t give the teachers a chance to explain themselves.

“It’s definitely unlawful,” said Becca Rothstein, a Jewish teacher in Montgomery County who helped organize Tuesday’s protest. “They just put these teachers on leave without really an explanation of saying why.”

Originally the protest was intended to ask for the reinstatement of Angela Wolf, the Takoma Park Middle School teacher, said Rothstein, who knows Wolf personally. But as organizers saw reports of more teachers on leave, they expanded their call.

Wolf was at the rally but declined to comment.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Celia Fischer confirmed that four employees are under investigation and were placed on administrative leave as a part of the process. She referred to the school system’s guidelines on digital communication, which instructs employees not to engage in “any conduct that is rude, disrespectful, uses vulgar language, racial slurs, or includes materials that are inflammatory, libelous, slanderous, or constitute cyberbullying, harassment or intimidation of others.”

School board members and Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight were scheduled to meet inside with student leaders to discuss mental health, school safety, athletics and other topics on Tuesday. Several Montgomery County Police Department vehicles were in the parking lot, and two school security staff monitored the protest from inside the building.

A teacher wrote a Palestinian rallying cry in her email. She’s on leave.

The rally was mostly peaceful. Some of the signs in the crowd said, “Stop criminalizing dissent,” and “MCPS stand by your staff.” A former student of Wolf’s, Khaliah Deya, spoke at the rally and characterized Wolf as “an anti-racist educator.” She added that Wolf was “de facto censored on false charges of antisemitism.”

Deya, 22, said that she drove from Baltimore to show support for Wolf, who was one of her middle school teachers. She said some of the social media posts from Wolf were “taken out of context.”

“Yes, she is a teacher, but she is a human being first,” Deya said. “She has her own personal opinions and expressions. … To judge her so harshly for voicing her own personal opinion on her own personal page, I think, is completely disrespectful.”

Last week, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington issued a statement that supported the school system’s decision to place the four teachers on administrative leave.

“While it is true that public officials, including teachers, may express opinions on public issues when speaking in a private capacity, that right is limited to those cases in which the speech does not interfere with official duties,” the organization said. They added that the teachers’ actions were “well-known, insidious anti-Semitic messages” that “cast doubt on their fitness to teach.”

Rothstein said the suspensions send a troubling message to students that is “anti-education.”

“Our students see what’s going on on their phones,” she said. “They’re confused why their teachers are being taken out of the classroom for saying something.”