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Public school district leaders face questions from Congress on antisemitism school policies

Leaders of some of America’s largest public school districts were questioned Wednesday by a House panel about incidents of anti-Semitism at their schools.

A Republican-led House education subcommittee called Berkeley Unified Schools Superintendent Enikia Ford Morhel of California, David Banks, New York City School Chancellor and Montgomery County School Board President Karla Silvestre of Maryland to testify.

Anti-Semitic incidents have exploded in primary and secondary schools following the horrific Hamas attacks. October 7 attack. Jewish teachers, students and professors were denied a safe learning environment and forced to deal with anti-Semitic agitators due to inaction by district leaders,” said Rep. Aaron Bean, a Republican from Florida, who chairs the House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on K-12 Education, told CBS News.

In his opening statement Wednesday, Bean said “the very necessity of this hearing is a travesty,” adding that the witnesses represent “some of the largest school districts in the country where there has been some vile anti-Semitism.”

A senior committee official told CBS News that the committee did not issue a subpoena, but it did ask school district leaders to appear voluntarily.

In a written statement shared with CBS News, the Berkeley United School District said Morthel “did not seek” to testify but accepted the invitation to appear.

A Berkeley school spokeswoman said: “We strive every day to ensure that our classrooms are respectful, humanizing and joyful places for all of our students, where they are welcomed, seen, valued and heard. We will continue to center our students and take care of each other during this time. »

Each of the three school districts has a large number of Jewish students. Each of them has been the subject of complaints regarding the handling of alleged incidents of anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Louis Brandeis Center submitted a complaint against Berkeley school systemalleging that some children suffered “severe and persistent harassment and discrimination on the basis of their Jewish ethnicity, common ancestry, and national origin, and whose reports to administrators were ignored for months.”

The Zionist Organization of America recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against Montgomery County Public Schools, claiming they failed to properly respond to anti-Semitic incidents in their schools. The school district did not respond to a request for comment on Silvestre or the board president’s planned testimony.

The Montgomery County Public School District’s publicly published policies on religious diversity state: “Every student has the right to their religious beliefs and practices, free from discrimination, intimidation, or harassment. »

New York City also faces a civil rights lawsuit from the Brandeis Center that alleges “a failure to address persistent anti-Semitism against teachers.” When asked for comment on his chancellor’s planned testimony, the New York Public Schools spokesperson referred CBS News to comments Banks made at a public event earlier this month.

“Exclusion and intimidation go against everything public education stands for,” Banks said. “We cannot allow acts of hatred, whether physical or mediated by anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

“It causes even more pain and puts up even more walls,” Banks added. “We must oppose it collectively.”

School district leaders were asked about the disciplinary actions they have taken to combat anti-Semitic acts in their schools, while defending their responses and pledging to make improvements.

“We can’t just come up with a solution to this problem,” Banks said. “The true antidote to ignorance and prejudice is to teach.”

Exchanges between witnesses and lawmakers have become tense at times, as has been the case during hearings with college administrators on efforts to combat anti-Semitism in recent months. In one exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who led the calls for resignation from some university leaders on the issue, arguing with Banks over the specific application of alleged anti-Semitic actions.

“You can give us an answer — you choose not to,” the New York Republican said of specific disciplinary action taken against a teacher. “This is unacceptable.”

Ahnyae Hedgepeth contributed to this report.

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