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Dear Decaturish – Two opposing views on CSD’s investigation of equity coordinator

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Dear Decaturish – Two opposing views on CSD’s investigation of equity coordinator

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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City Schools of Decatur parents have offered opposing views about the recent investigation of CSD equity coordinator Anthony Downer after he sent an email about Israel and Palestine to central office staff. CSD’s investigation found Downer violated district policies and procedures. He was not terminated from his job. The investigation prompted numerous public comments at a recent school board meeting.

This post contains two letters. Anyone who wishes to respond to these letters may do so by submitting a letter to the editor to [email protected]. All letters must be signed.

Letter 1

Dear Decaturish,

We are alarmed to read of City Schools of Decatur Equity Director Anthony Downer’s suspension for sharing a resource document on events contextualizing what is happening in Gaza from an educational standpoint. We demand CSD apologize to Mr. Downer for disciplining him without reason. The censorship of Palestine within CSD is a grave issue of academic freedom that contradicts the district’s stated values and puts students at risk.

The investigation report regarding Mr. Downer–posted in a Decaturish article–states, “CSD does not share his views politically on the conflict.” Given CSD is not a political organization, how can it simultaneously penalize Mr. Downer for having views determined to conflict with CSD’s unstated political views?

The report quotes Mr. Downer’s email: “We must continue to educate ourselves following the attack by Hamas and during the ongoing genocide in Gaza. …” This is a statement of fact: Following the events of October 7, in which an estimated 1,100 Israelis were killed, Israel has bombed Gaza for over two months, killing over 18,000 Palestinians, displacing at least 1.9 million people, creating 25,000 orphans, destroying over 250,000 homes, and blocking access to water, food, electricity, and humanitarian aid. These are statements of fact that even Israeli press and academic experts on genocide will confirm.

To help put this loss in even more stark terms. In the last two months, at least 7,729 children have been killed in Gaza. There are only 5,637 students in our entire school district.

We call on CSD to reject any censorship of Palestine, which is no different from efforts that seek to limit how race and racism can be taught in the classroom. Similarly, these efforts are rooted in bias and attempt to obscure history or critical discussion of current events. We must lift up the work of Mr. Downer and others who share stories and resources for learning about people and struggles that are often rendered invisible.

We have seen news and social media reports that CSD has been receiving pressure to condemn the resources Mr. Downer shared as antisemitic. We categorically reject this assertion as false. Too often, the mere mention of Palestine is attacked as antisemitic, which is not only a gross injustice but also does a great disservice to the fight against actual antisemitism, which remains essential.

One clear example of this censorship involves students at Decatur High School assigned to represent Bahrain, Jordan, and Palestine in the Model Arab League. At some point, CSD decided not to represent Palestine. During the public comment section of the December 12, 2023, Board of Education meeting, parents shared that this decision was made without any discussion with the DHS Model Arab League participants or their families. CSD censored any discussion or representation of Palestine when a timely educational opportunity was presented. Why?

We urge CSD to consider how it is targeting and alienating CSD families through its suspension of Mr. Downer and its censorship of Palestine. As the parents of Black, Muslim, South Asian, and Jewish children who are already marginalized in CSD, our children will be at greater risk if CSD continues to enable an atmosphere of fear and persecution, where even mentioning Palestine is viewed as inherently biased.

The stakes are too high. We have seen too many examples of violence amid the rise in anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia in the U.S. with the recent brutal killing of a six-year old Palestinian boy in Chicago and the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington. We can not allow this to happen in Decatur.

We believe equity is integral to CSD. We ask that CSD adhere to its Framework for Equitable Student Outcomes in order to sustain a positive culture and climate in which all our students and staff feel safe, seen, and successful.

Censorship, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism have no place in Decatur.

— CSD parents Adam Horowitz, Kavita Rajanna, Jennifer Snow, Rahim Snow, and Andrew Holley

Letter 2

Dear Decaturish,

We are Jewish parents of CSD, working together among dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish parents of CSD, with great concerns about the general rise in antisemitism and the surge of antisemitic incidents our children and families have personally experienced both in schools and in the community. Jewish families in Decatur – and across America – are feeling isolated, hurt, and scared for our children due to the overt and less obvious forms of antisemitism that have rocked the world since October 7. Against this backdrop, we are writing in response to comments made at the CSD board meeting Tuesday, December 12th.

First, we want to commend CSD leadership for the work done so far to address the various issues related to staff, curriculum, and day-to-day incidents of hate/intolerance against students of Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds. We acknowledge that these are difficult issues and our priority is the safety of all students and families; our hope is that the community can work together to do the best we can in an imperfect environment. In a week where even presidents of leading academic institutions faced intense scrutiny about their ability to deal with these issues at Penn, Harvard, and MIT, it should be clear to everyone that there are no easy answers or simple choices. Let’s work together to do the best we can, but let’s not lose sight of the need to achieve – at a minimum – a safe environment for students of all backgrounds and opinions. 

Second, we came away quite pleased with the potential for common ground with fellow parents who advocated for free expression, balanced curriculums, safe schools, and proper handling of staff incidents. What we believe is lacking is a proper forum to have a constructive dialogue about what we (as Jewish parents) want, which was (sadly) often misrepresented. For example:

— We do not want Gaza, Palestinian history, or the current war to be avoided or censored by staff or in curriculum.

— We do want to ensure that the content in classrooms is credible, vetted, meets state standards, and advances critical thinking skills to grasp complex ideas and issues.

— We do want students to hear from (accepted, legitimate) experts on both sides to provide information/context that will allow students to come away with their own conclusions.

— We do not want students of Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, or any other descent to feel like their struggles or history is being ignored or neglected.

— We do want students to learn the facts about this complex conflict based on reliable, vetted sources; in the process of teaching students how to think critically and interpret history, we have to present facts and complex concepts that help students develop their critical thinking skills.

— We do want the human death toll on the Palestinian side to be openly discussed and central to the discussion; so too should the nature of the killings be discussed (on both sides) and the impact it is having on their respective societies.

— We do not want an atmosphere of fear for our staff or students.

— We do want an environment where staff and students can learn about and discuss history and current events without fear of being singled out, harassed, or put down for being Jewish, Muslim, or any other background or identity.

We hope that all parents can agree that given these principles, there is ample room for common ground and a shared perspective for how to move forward.

Finally, in response to comments made about Mr. Downer and his actions:

1. Process/code of conduct: Off the bat, sending unapproved emails with advocacy for political positions and requests to take specific actions on a hot-button issue is not allowed at almost any organization, let alone a publicly-funded school system. This should not be a controversial point, nor is it a first amendment issue. Organizations are within their rights to set additional standards above and beyond constitutional right and protections as they see fit. 

2. Advocacy of specific political positions: We would take less issue with the email had Mr. Downer not explicitly advocated for a particular political position, i.e. “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the end of hostilities in the region”, in supporting one’s right to take political action and represent their views to our elected officials. Had he said, “call your congressman and tell them how you feel,” there would be no issue. But encouraging staff to “call your congressman and tell them you believe XYZ”, is antithetical to the mission of schools to educate on how to engage in critical thinking, form independent opinions, and generally out of bounds for ANY staff member, let alone in his position. 

3. Imbalanced, one-sided, and misleading resources: This document referenced sources with clear, pre-existing political biases, perspectives, and in some cases blatant hatred of Jews. It contained highly troubling sources that sought to minimize the 10/7 massacre, encourage violence/terrorism, and/or stemmed from organizations with close links to officially designated terrorist organizations or questionable academic sources.

Last, the issue of censorship is a red herring. What would people say if the board had taken action against a staff member who sent resources encouraging students to take action by calling their congressmen or AIPAC and asking them to advocate for sending more US aid to Israel, escalating the US military’s position in the region, or some other support of the Israeli effort? People would rightly call this action from a school district employee inappropriate. Saying otherwise is hypocrisy.

In tackling these challenges, it is imperative we uphold our commitment to creating an environment that not only champions free expression, critical thinking, and respect for diverse perspectives, but also prioritizes the use of factual and credible resources. Our shared objective must consistently revolve around creating a safe and inclusive space for every student, regardless of background or convictions. We eagerly await ongoing collaboration and open dialogue, where the voices of all are heard and thoughtfully considered in shaping the future of our school system.

Signed,

Jewish and non-Jewish parents of CSD, including:

Jacob Shmukler, David Apatov, Sarah Apatov, Rachel Avrunin, Zoe Barracano, Steve Black, Barbara Blum, John Cearley, Jonathan Crane, Monique Davidson, Sarah Friedenthal-Greene, Evin Galang, Noah Galang, Elizabeth Gatcombe, David Gutman, Alisa Lewis, Andrew Lewis, Yael Manes, Neta Mappa, Aaron Marks, Amanda Marks, Felicia Mayer, Scott Mayer, Debi McNeil, James McNeil,  Elana Perry, Carey Yaruss Sanders, Gabriel Sanders, Jennifer Serwitz, Yael D. Sherman, Becca Shmukler, Mara Silver, Brian Silver, David Skalka, Michelle Skalka, Catherine Stengel, Lauren Wattenmaker, Jamie Willis

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