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Education Dept. investigates Virginia school district's response to anti-Semitic incidents

Fairfax County Public Schools
The Fairfax County Public Schools headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. |

Amid increasing concerns over a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether the largest school district in Virginia mishandled allegations of harassment against Jewish students. 

The OCR informed the pro-Israel advocacy group the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) in a Nov. 3 letter that it would look into the organization's January complaint that Fairfax County Public Schools in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., failed to respond to instances of anti-Semitic harassment.

Since the school district receives federal financial assistance from the Department of Education, the ORC has jurisdiction to investigate under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Specifically, the department will investigate "Whether the School Division discriminated on the basis of national origin by failing to appropriately respond to incidents that created a hostile environment at School Division schools for students and staff of Jewish descent." 

The department said that the investigation is only within the realm of their purview and does not mean ZOA's claims have merit. The agency will not investigate the organization's claims that an FCPS school board member posted false statements about Israel on her Facebook and Twitter pages, nor will it investigate if exams were scheduled on Jewish holidays. 

"Please note that opening Allegation 1 for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the allegation," the letter from OCR team lead Letisha Morgan-Cosic reads.

"During the investigation, OCR is a neutral factfinder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from you, the School Division, and other sources, as appropriate."

ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement that the group is "pleased that OCR is investigating FCPS for failing to respond effectively to longstanding problems of antisemitism in the district."

"We thank members of the Jewish community who came to us, shared the painful antisemitic experiences that their children endured, and described how the experiences were rendered even more painful for students and their families when the antisemitism was met with indifference, insensitivity, and inaction by FCPS officials," Klein said. 

The Christian Post asked FCPS for comment on the investigation and ZOA's complaint. A response is pending. 

ZOA filed its complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that the district violated the act by failing to "respond appropriately and effectively to a hostile antisemitic environment." 

The complaint shares the experiences of one parent who says her children faced anti-Semitic harassment while attending Irving Middle School and West Springfield High School. 

The family contends the kids endured classmates giving them "Heil Hitler" salutes and making jokes about the Holocaust. The complaint claims the teacher dismissed the behavior as "foolishness" and did not take additional steps to address the problem even after being contacted by the parents. 

The report describes students throwing coins at the children while making jokes about Jews being greedy. 

In another alleged incident, the parent claims that a swastika was etched into her child's desk. Despite the principal assuring the mother the issue would be taken seriously, the mom claims the swastika was never removed from her child's desk and remained there for the rest of the school year. 

The parent also contacted the same principal about swastikas in the high school bathrooms. 

Similar complaints were made by Anna Stolley Persky, who published a Washington Post op-ed last March. The mother claimed that during her twin boys' sixth-grade year, other students made Nazi salutes and sang "Happy Birthday to Hitler" in the cafeteria. The mother said her boys were not the only Jews who faced such harassment.

Despite contacting the school administration, Persky claimed officials initially met her complaints with "resistance and denial" but the school eventually "tried to cobble together some sort of Holocaust education on the fly." 

Persky accused the FCPS of failing to ensure exams and other important school events are not scheduled on Jewish holidays, such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. While some school staff is apologetic, the mother said she's had to deal with teachers who outright refuse to make religious accommodations. 

Last November, FCPS acknowledged that it had experienced "several incidents of racial and anti-Semitic graffiti at some of our schools," calling them "unkind" and "completely unacceptable."

"Please know that acts of racism, anti-Semitism, and hate will not be tolerated in our FCPS community," the school district assured parents in an e-newsletter. "Our division is a place where we strive for inclusiveness and compassion. It is our responsibility to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and humanity. Our schools must be a safe space for every child and adult in the building."

ZOA also alleges that school board member Abrar Omeish violated FCPS' policies by posting false statements about Israel on her Facebook and Twitter pages. 

The group said that Omeish accused Israel of "desecrating the Holy Land," "apartheid" and "colonization."

"Ms. Omeish's actions took place during a highly charged period, in May 2021, when Israel was forced to defend its citizens against a barrage of deadly rockets launched from Gaza into Israeli towns and cities by the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas," the complaint reads.

"Israel's need and duty to defend its people fueled shocking antisemitism in Europe and the U.S."

The OCR said it can't investigate the school board member's Twitter thread, as too much time has passed.

Similar falsehoods about Israel appear to have fueled the rise in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses that the Anti-Defamation League described in its November 2022 "Campus Report."

According to the Jewish advocacy group, more than 350 anti-Israel incidents occurred on college campuses during the 2021-2022 school year, including143 anti-Israel events, 165 protests and actions, and 20 Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions and referenda. 

In addition, the ADL reported 11 instances of vandalism, 19 instances of targeted verbal and written harassment, and one case involving a physical assault.

During an April 18 protest against Israeli military action organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a student threw a rock at a group of Jewish students. While no one was hurt, the perpetrator has been charged with a hate crime.

Last year, the ADL reported 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism against Jewish people, the highest number on record since the ADL began tracking anti-Semitic incidents in 1979.

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: samantha.kamman@christianpost.com.

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