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Investigation of CSD equity coordinator prompts public comments to school board

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Investigation of CSD equity coordinator prompts public comments to school board

People packed the Wilson Center during the Decatur School Board meeting on Dec. 12, 2023, to make public comments regarding the conflict in Israel and Gaza and a recent investigation of City Schools of Decatur's equity coordinator. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — A recent investigation found that City Schools of Decatur’s equity coordinator violated district policies and procedures when he sent an email about Israel and Palestine to central office staff. That action prompted several public comments during the Decatur School Board meeting on Dec. 12, with many saying the district is censoring conversations about Palestine.

The investigation also said that the equity coordinator, Anthony Downer, should be “released from his current position,” but Downer continues to work for the district. City Schools of Decatur provided the investigation to Decaturish in response to a records request. It was first reported on by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The email sent to central office staff at City Schools of Decatur on Oct. 26 regarding Israel and Palestine was disavowed by school district leaders. The email came days after the start of the Israel-Hamas War. The Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas against Israelis and the deaths of civilians in response to that attack has been a divisive topic, particularly within education.

Resident Kavita Rajanna shared a portion of a group letter that was sent to the school board that was written by some parents.

“We were alarmed that an equity [coordinator] was suspended for sharing a resource document on events contextualizing what is happening in Gaza from an educational standpoint,” Rajanna said. “In response to suggestions that the resources shared are anti-Semitic, we categorically reject this as false.”

She claimed that the censorship of discussions about Palestine within the school district is an issue of academic freedom.

“These efforts to limit discourse on Palestine are rooted in bias and simply an attempt to obscure history and the critical discussion of current events,” Rajanna said. “We must lift up the work of the person who was reprimanded and other staff and teachers who share stories and resources for learning about people and struggles for justice that are often rendered invisible.”

Rajanna added that equity is integral to City Schools of Decatur.

“We ask that you adhere to the district’s framework for equitable student outcomes in order to sustain a positive culture and climate in which all of our students and staff feel safe, seen and successful,” Rajanna said.

Rahim Snow said he wants to make sure Palestine is given a voice in the community.

“There are groups and forces and pressures that don’t want us to talk about Palestine, that want to keep it as part of some other topic, some other place, happening somewhere else,” Snow said.

Snow also cited CSD’s international baccalaureate learner profile, which talks about teaching students to be global citizens and to care about what’s happening in the world.

“My request is that we’ve got to find a way to bring the topic of Palestine into the curriculum, into our offices, into what the teachers talk about, what the staff talks about. We need to normalize it because anyone suffering is something that our students should know about,” Snow said.

Hannah Rogers said she’s been proud of the school district for being a leader in bringing multiple perspectives in the classroom and allowing teachers to have frank conversations with students.

“As an IB World School, CSD leads the charge in studying data, text and visual culture from all over the world and empowering students to critically examine information to inform their view,” Rogers said. “This semester, some of those conversations are getting shut down at school. Some teachers and some students are fearful.”

“As a fellow educator, I’m alarmed by the silencing that I’m witnessing in the City Schools of Decatur,” she added.

Students from Decatur High were also scheduled to represent Palestine in the Model Arab League, but a decision was made to not have students participate, according to several of the public comments. Rogers said that decision sends a message “that the perspective of Palestinian people doesn’t matter.”

“When materials are distributed from an Arab-based news source as a means of offering additional perspective on the ongoing war and that is treated as misconduct or a crime, that too sends a message,” she said. “Allowing ‘We stand with Israel’ posters in CSD classrooms while removing other flyers, that sends a message.”

In a statement, CSD said that participation in the Model Arab League Conference is an extracurricular activity for DHS. The countries selected, and the research materials used to prepare students is determined by the conference and is outside the purview of the school district.

“We received concerns from potential participants’ parents about the safety of students participating in the Model Arab League, given the escalation of the conflict in Israel and Gaza,” the statement says. “The shift in involvement in the upcoming conference was based on the district’s responsibility of providing students with opportunities to engage in critical thinking as global citizens within safe and inclusive learning environments. Given that students will be presenting in a public forum, and the local impact of the increasing polarization of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, City Schools of Decatur made the decision to allow students to continue their participation in the conference representing the two other MAL assigned countries.”

DHS students have participated in the Model Arab League for over a decade, and this will continue, according to the statement.

“City Schools of Decatur is a public school district that believes when we focus our attention on children and their academic outcomes, we will make a difference in the lives of all children,” Superintendent Dr. Gyimah Whitaker said. “As our school community strives to navigate through change and uncertainty, we want to re-emphasize our resolute commitment to making City Schools of Decatur a school community that fosters respect, love, and inclusion over Islamophobia and antisemitism.”

Alexandria Drohobyczer thanked the school board for approving a controversial issues policy on Tuesday night, but also wondered how the school district will ensure teachers are knowledgeable enough to be able to address the complexity of topics students bring up.

She also wondered how CSD will make sure teachers have proper training to effectively facilitate conversations.

“After passing this policy, and indeed with the comments that have happened today, [there’s a] critical need to be able to facilitate these conversations among students and truly among fellow parents in the district to make sure that we are really pushing forward inclusion,” she said.

Zoe Barracano said she doesn’t understand why supporting one community is being done at the exclusion or expense of another.

“What I’m seeing is a vast and disparate community of people and opinions, who, due to a lack of balanced sources and research have caused great harm to our community by, for example, instituting false propaganda disguised as curriculum, by involvement in one-sided extracurricular activities etc,” Barracano said.

She also wondered what curriculum standards are required for opposing viewpoints.

“We are at a critical juncture in history where the pendulum of public opinion is swinging to extremes at both ends,” Barracano said. “It is imperative that we deeply examine our source information before further deleteriously impacting the safety of all our children and the people they become.”

Mawuli Davis with Black Man Lab said the organization aims to create safe, sacred and healing spaces for African American men. Downer has been part of that work as well.

“One of the greatest concerns, what’s so sad, is that somehow we have said that as a school district Palestinian voices should not be heard and that’s deeply disturbing,” Davis said. “It’s disturbing for the young men that we seek to serve every week that we volunteer here in the city of Decatur. Many of those young men are Muslim, and we want them to be courageous.”

Black Man Lab doesn’t want those young men to feel like they’ll be silenced, he added.

“To think for a moment that we have a situation today where we cannot say and honor the sacredness of the children of Palestine without being called anti-Semitic is scary,” Davis said.

Editor and Publisher Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this article. 

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