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Chancellor Banks visits Hillcrest H.S. to calm tensions following ‘antisemitic’ rampage incident

Nov. 27, 2023 By Iryna Shkurhan

New York City Department of Education Chancellor, David C. Banks, visited Hillcrest High School in Jamaica on Monday Nov. 27, following a disorderly protest inside the school a week earlier that threatened a Jewish teacher for her pro-Israel stance. 

Before laying out the details of the incident on Nov. 20 to dozens of members of the press inside the school’s library after dismissal, he met directly with dozens of Hillcrest students to hear their perspective. He also held a talk with more than 200 staff members and called on them to use recent events as teachable moments. 

Several students planned a pro-Palestine protest, which would also condemn a teacher’s pro-Israel stance, to take place during the 5th period passing period on Monday, Nov. 20. By then, school officials had heard about the planned action. As the protest began to unfold, police were questioning the teacher in a separate area of the school. 

A video of students at the school rampaging went viral on social media over the weekend, days after it occurred. The incident lasted approximately two hours and resulted in a water fountain ripped out of the wall and shattered tiles in a restroom. 

The Jewish teacher had changed her Facebook profile picture to one of her holding a sign that said ‘I Stand with Israel’ weeks before the incident. Students found the image and began to circulate it in disapproval of her stance. The day before the incident, the teacher expressed concerns of her safety to the administration after she saw social media posts about her circulating online. 

Contrary to other reports that he labeled as “misinformation,” the chancellor repeatedly said that “the teacher was not in direct danger” and was on a different floor, in the assistant principal’s office, while the incident unfolded on the second or third floor. He also reinforced that the majority of the 2,500 students at Hillcrest did not participate in the action.

“A lot of these students, they didn’t know what they were doing at the moment. They didn’t even want to be a part of this,” said senior class president Muhammad Ghazali. “It didn’t turn out the way it should have been. It was meant to be a peaceful protest from the very beginning. But some of these students lack maturity. They didn’t really think of it as a serious moment or a moment to actually go out and protest.”  

The school’s senior class president, Muhammad Ghazali, spoke on behalf of the students.Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The involved students were invoked a set of disciplinary actions, some of which were suspended. The officials could not disclose how many students were disciplined, or the extent of action, to protect their privacy.

Banks criticized the spread of misinformation online and said that he was “deeply offended by any suggestion that we would be less forthcoming” or that the school and Department of Education would hide or cover up facts. 

“The message that we really wanted to get out there was that we wanted Palestine to be free. But the message got lost and lots of people were hurt mentally,” said Khadijah Ahmed, another student who joined the chancellor to speak on behalf of the student body. 

While the chancellor and borough president heard from dozens of students during the day, no Jewish students publicly commented on the incident to the press alongside the officials.

Earlier in the day, Queens elected officials and Jewish community leaders rallied outside of the DOE offices in Ozone Park and called for accountability and more transparency from city officials. 

“The riot happened on Monday, but my office didn’t know about it until Tuesday. And even the Chancellor’s office didn’t know about it until Wednesday,” Council Member James Gennaro said at the rally. “Was this not a big deal? Of course it was; it was a riot in a school against a teacher who quietly stood with Israel, for which she could have been seriously injured or even killed.”

Council Members Vickie Paladino and Joann Ariola also echoed outrage at the incident and called for tougher consequences against school officials who attempted to keep the incident under wraps and the students who instigated it. Both are members of the Common-Sense Caucus in the council, which shared a statement on the incident on Monday.

“Students not only disrupted the school but also horrifyingly threatened to execute a Jewish teacher due to her pro-Israel stance, obtained her personal address, and demanded her dismissal,” read the statement. The Administration must conduct a complete and transparent investigation to ensure justice is served. The students involved and any Department of Education staff member who neglected their duty or participated in hiding or promoting these events must face consequences for their actions. We must send a clear message: such vile acts have no place in our schools or our society.”

State Assemblymember David Weprin also called for accountability and disciplinary action against “the perpetrators of this riot” at the rally on Monday morning. Later in the day, he stood alongside the chancellor and student representatives, but did not deliver remarks.

The day after the incident, the school was “calm and peaceful” according to the chancellor. But on Wednesday, Nov. 22, a student warned the principal that the protests would continue as long as the teacher was employed at the school. The school was placed on lockdown, school safety agents were deployed and no chaos ensued. 

“When the bell rings and everybody is in the hallway, it can seem like mass chaos. Just on a good day,” said Banks, who also attended Hillcrest High School and served as senior class vice president. “Many of the students who were running and jumping had no idea what was going on. This notion that these kids are radicalized and antisemetic is the height of irresponsibility.” 

The chancellor also placed some of the blame on social media being the main source of news for young people. 

“What they are seeing on a daily basis are children and young people in Palestine being blown up. That’s what they’re consuming,” said Banks, also pointing out that approximately 30% of the student body is Arab. “They feel a kindred spirit with the folks of the Palestinian community. This is a very visceral and emotional issue for them.” 

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards spoke with students and staff alongside the chancellor during the day.Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The chancellor said that he will convene all principals across the city on a Zoom call later in the week to discuss how to encourage responsible conversations for the students, instead of avoiding the issue. 

“We should not simply allow this entire school body to be demonized,” said Borough President Donovan Richards, who also sat in on talks with students and staff alongside the chancellor. “We have to be careful in the way we talk about our children as well. To speak about every child in the school, as if they’re antisemitic is simply wrong.”

The teacher will be returning to school later this week and officials reinforced that her safety will be ensured. 

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