‘Princeton Public Schools has failed’

Princeton High School walkout continues to roil school district

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The May 9 walkout by Princeton High School (PHS) students to the now-disbanded pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel encampment at Princeton University continues to reverberate in the Princeton Public Schools.

More than 40 attendees filled the meeting room at the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education’s June 11 meeting, some spilling out into the hallway, to express their views and to call on the district for more education about Palestine.

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The Princeton High School administration has overlooked the safety of students whose expression of solidarity with Palestine became punishable, said Zainab Qureshi, who attended the Princeton Public Schools.

The high school students who walked out on May 9 in solidarity with Palestinians and who wore traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarves were labeled as agitators by the administration, she said. The walkout organizers were labeled as disruptive, despite the peaceful planning for the event.

Being pro-Palestine is not a Muslim issue or a religious issue, Qureshi said. It is an issue of humanity. The school district acknowledges that systemic racism and bias exists, and “we demand the district does better in standing up against racism” and ensuring that all students feel safe, she said.

“The Princeton Public Schools has failed,” Qureshi said. “We can no longer trust you with the task of education when the mention of Palestinian lives becomes offensive and justice for all becomes conditional.”

Muhammad Bahri, who is a Princeton University graduate student, told the school board that he had experienced Islamophobia. As a child, he was teased and accused of being a terrorist, even though he is an American.

“These PHS students are being persecuted for standing in solidarity with their (Palestinian) peers – people their age who are being bombed merely because of the place they were born,” Bahri said.

If the leaders of the Princeton community or the school district do not protect the rights of students who are protesting crimes against humanity, then all people of conscience will remember this wound in the community, he said.

Bahri noted at the school board’s May 21 meeting that he was one of the leaders of the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel encampment on the Princeton University campus.

At the June meeting, PHS sophomore Zia Hughes told the school board that she was one of the organizers of the walkout and sought to make it clear that it was a student-led and student-organized event.

The marshals from the Princeton University encampment never set foot on the PHS campus, but merely accompanied the students to the walkout in order to protect them, Hughes said.

“On the day of the walkout, I was compared to a terrorist before I even opened my mouth – simply for wearing a keffiyeh,” she said.

Students have been taught in school to stand up against injustice, Hughes said. The values of the school were put to the test, as students chose to speak up against oppression and in support of Palestinians.

But other speakers disagreed.

A Jewish PHS student said she has both Palestinian and Israeli friends, and she believes in peaceful dialogue – but that is not what happened on May 9.

There was graffiti in the school and some students ran through the hallways, banging drums and passing out flyers about the walkout while other students were taking Advanced Placement exams, she said.

“There is a way to go about asking for peace and safety, and this isn’t it,” the student said. “As a Jewish student, me and my friends feel intimidated and unsafe.”

Parent Heather Salkin agreed and said that based on conversations with her children and their friends and parents, the Jewish students felt fearful and unprotected on the day of the walkout. They were screamed at and asked if they were Jewish. Flyers about the walkout were thrown in their faces, she said.

Many of the students who walked out were peaceful, but many of them did not know what they were walking out on. “But you know, these are high school students,” Salkin said.

A Cranbury parent sought a middle ground between the two factions. Students should make an effort to get to know the Muslim community and their Muslim classmates, and the productive members of the community that they can be, she said.

It is easy to “otherize” a person when you don’t know them, she said. Students and staff need to get to know people for what they are, not for what the news is telling them that they need to be.

“We are a little late to the game, but I think it should already have happened,” she continued. “We will move mountains if we step toward each other rather than away from each other.”

School board president Dafna Kendal wrapped up the discussion by pointing out that “we are a school board. We educate children. I can assure you that no one is being persecuted.”

“We are not a perfect district,” she added. “We need to work on kindness. We need to work more on listening and understanding each other.

“I’m not sure this meeting is the place for that to happen.”

Kendal encouraged the parents and attendees to find another forum where they could peacefully engage in a discussion of their beliefs.

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