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D219 responds to unfolding of Israel-Hamas war; works to create safe environment

Graphic by James R Prizant

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East has ravaged both the world and this school, especially after Hamas’ invasion of the Gaza Strip and the subsequent declaration of war from Israel on Hamas. Countless students have been planning protests, advocating for peace, and some, even fearing for their safety in school walls. With the acts of violence happening in the Israeli and Palestinian Middle East, D219 has been doing its best to ensure the safety and comfort of its concerned students despite all the hatred.

Since Hamas’ attack in the Gaza Strip, many students have been worried about what is to come. In response, superintendent Tom Moore did his best to console the district’s students and staff in an email he sent out on Oct. 9. In it, he mentioned his horror upon hearing of the attack, encouraged district members to come together in consolation, and reminded people of the resources available to those personally affected by the attacks.

“Ever since I woke up on Saturday, I have been horrified and saddened by the images coming from Israel,” Moore said.  “In times like this, we must all come together in support of our District 219 family members, especially those who are suffering. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or concerns. To our students, if you need someone to speak to, please reach out to your teacher, counselor, or any trusted adult.”

First of all, I want to extend my deepest condolences to all members of our school community who have suffered the loss of friends, family, and property as a result of the war in the Middle East. Regardless of our individual differences on the issues in this war, there is one constant: many of our classmates, colleagues, and friends are suffering, and need to feel safe and supported each and every day at Niles North. We are here for you. ”

— Niles North Principal James Edwards

This email upset many Muslim, Palestinian, Arab, and Middle Eastern students of the district, as they felt the email was tilted in support of Israel, having only mentioned those suffering on the Israeli side of the conflict. This spurred into the creation of a Snapchat group of hundreds of members, wherein students planned the “Protest for Humanity.” In it, students in the district planned a public walkout of school during homeroom in order to bring representation to those killed and suffering from the war. Though it looked to be a protest for both Jewish and Muslim students, some antisemitic students used this group chat as a way of poking fun at Israel, Jewish students, and Israeli supporters.

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The sudden change in the Snapchat group’s environment, along with a meeting West students held with Moore, led to the cancellation of the Protest for Humanity. Moore sent out another email on Oct. 11 where he announced and confirmed the cancellation while also praising the district’s active students for supporting and looking out for each other.

“Over the course of the last several days, we have been talking with our students to provide a safe means and place to express their views. In lieu of a walkout, students have opted for continued conversation and action planning with school and district leaders,” Moore’s email stated.  “All students have constitutionally protected speech rights that must be carefully balanced and harmonized with the rights of others and the District’s educational mission.  We appreciate and value your support as we strive to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students.”

“I’ve been scared, I’ve genuinely been scared that  something might happen and people that I know will be hurt. I am not referring to the Palestinian students, I am referring to the people that have been making threats, making these horrible jokes of bombings and terror. I am scared of the people that are bringing the war here, bringing them into our local community. I have friends in Israel, I have people that I know and care about. I am terrified for their safety. I am scared that one day I will wake up and they’ll be gone. What I know is that knowledge is the greatest tool we have, and that giving people the knowledge to form their own opinions, to stand up for what they believe in is the most important thing; to give people the knowledge and power they need to make a difference.”

— anonymous Jewish junior

Protests and district conflicts did not cease, but in fact, they turned extremely serious in terms of safety. Two members of the aforementioned Snapchat group suggested and joked about bombing Niles North and the Orthodox Kehilat Chovevei Tzion synagogue on Crawford Ave. Moore quickly made an email upon finding this out, explaining the involvement of the Skokie Police Department, the possible expulsion of the students, and ensuring his concern for the safety of the district’s students.

“Earlier today, school administration was alerted to a social media thread that contained references to bomb threats made by two students,” Moore said. “In response, we immediately partnered with the Skokie Police Department to determine the origin, author, and credibility of the threats. Due to the threatening nature of those actions and disruption to the educational process, discipline may be up to and including expulsion, whether a credible threat or not. The safety and security of our students and staff are of the utmost priority to us, and we want to assure you that all necessary measures have been taken to ensure everyone’s safety.”

This story made it past the people of Skokie, reaching X (formerly Twitter) on accounts like @StopAntisemites and even newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. In potentially dangerous situations like this, Dr. Edwards has also wanted to confirm the seriousness and swiftness in which these situations are handled.

Despite Moore emailing the district on how the potential bombing situation was handled, making sure to say that future instances will also be handled punitively, many of Niles North’s students, especially Jews and Israelis, continue to feel unsafe with such negative sentiments from other students still floating around the school.

“We are living in uncertain times and there are no easy solutions,” Niles North principal Dr. Jim Edwards said. “I have heard from a number of students who have not felt safe here at Niles North over the course of the last few weeks and there are things we can do. We could work to ensure that this war does not rip apart the fabric of our school community as we strive to create a sense of belonging for all. We can listen and try to understand opposing viewpoints and sympathize with the lived experiences of those around us. We can call on leaders in the Middle East to come together to resolve the issues before one more ounce of blood is spilled. Now, more than ever, we need each other. Our administrative team prioritizes the safety of every student and staff member in this building. Anytime we believe that there is a threat to the building, we act on it immediately, involve the Skokie Police Department, and investigate it thoroughly.”

On Oct. 14, an act of murder and hate crime was committed in Illinois, one the district would also be aware of in part thanks to Moore. On that day, a kindergartener and Chicagoan Muslim boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, wa fatally stabbed 26 times in Plainfield Township by his family’s extremist, 71-year-old landlord. He also stabbed Al-Fayoume’s mother, Hanaan Shahin, leaving her critically injured.

Moore sent out another email on Oct. 16 explaining the situation, describing it as an act of evil, and once again encouraging students in crisis to reach out to adults for help. This hurt the Skokie and D219 community deeply, leaving many appalled at such deplorable actions.

 “I wish there was no war to even begin with and it’s really difficult to ‘pick a side’ because both sides have done many wrong things. I think the antisemitism and jokes are genuinely disgusting and it’s not even funny; why would you joke about bombing? Like, what if someone said they were going to bomb your school and bomb a mosque? You would feel unsafe and disrespected, so why would you want to make a Jewish community feel the same way? I advocate for human rights and I think it’s absolutely right that they’re punishing students who make such disgusting jokes against Israelis and Jewish people; I believe they deserve it. In our homerooms, I think there needs to be some video representation that explains that during this time of crisis, both sides should be respectful to each other, and despite our differences, we should not discriminate and make jokes about the other side, and keep the hate stuff out of the school environment.”

— anonymous Muslim sophomore

“I am so sad to be writing again in the face of more tragedy and heartbreak,” Moore said. “[Al-Fayoume’s murder] pains me as a father, a teacher, and as a human being. It is impossible for us as adults to understand such an act of evil, and our students here will be deeply impacted. Just as in America, there is no place for hate in our District 219 community. In these most difficult times we must stand together and let all of our children know that they are loved, and that they are safe. I assure you all that hate speech, in any form, will not be tolerated in our schools.”

This would be the last in a series of emails Moore sent out regarding the war in the Middle East and how it has affected D219 so far. Due to all the acts of hate being voiced and acted upon inside and outside, many of Niles North’s students want the Middle Eastern violence to stay out of the district.

Many students share a similar sentiment of neutrality and peace, hoping for both sides of the conflict to find a resolution to stop the hate in both the Middle East and D219. Many of Niles North’s active students have made plans to speak about personal struggles, Israeli history, Hamas’ antisemitic intentions/actions, and generally educating the public to prevent the rampant spread of misinformation. Niles North’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) brought a guest speaker to the school, holding a seminar focused on celebrating common ground among various world religions, specifically Islam and Judaism. Also, Israeli Club and the Hebrew Honor Society held a seminar, “Understanding Israel,” that focused on the specific tragedies and statistics that came as a result of Hamas’ attacks on Israel since Oct. 7. These information and peace seminars turned some heads and saw some success.

“I am incredibly proud of our student leaders,” Student Activities Director Jody Trapani said. “I’d like to see mutual respect, groups coming together and actively listening to opposing viewpoints, and more of the education that I have seen and dispelling of misinformation.”

Many adults and teachers in this building have been directly and/or personally impacted by the Middle Eastern conflict and share a similar sentiment of peace and compassion between both sides, hoping for their students to heal from the wounds the conflict has created.

“I’ve had several students who have been personally impacted and this is a very stressful and sad time for them,” Social studies teacher Pankaj Sharma said. “I’ve had a few students share with me how this has been a very difficult time for them recently. It seems like the school district takes these dangerous situations, those of hate speech and potential violence, very seriously, as they should. Our school will continue to emphasize that student and staff need to be respectful of each other, supportive of each other and continue to have open minds and be willing learn about other people’s perspectives and feelings.”

The Israel-Hamas war and the preceding battles and conflicts have been a terrible and stressful time for many of the district’s Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, and Palestinian students. Both Israelis and Palestinians have had atrocities and crimes committed upon each other in and out of the Middle East, creating potentially hostile environments around the world. With the more recent lack of dangerous events affecting the school, like hate speech and hate crimes, one hopes that the district will continue to do what it does best: keeping the schools to be safe learning environments, punishing those people in the school calling to hate speech and violence, and educating students and staff on what is  going on in the Middle East between Israel, Palestine, and Hamas. Given the words students and staff have received from Edwards and Moore, it seems that those actions in keeping the district safe have become a priority and won’t be going away any time soon.

This story was originally published on North Star News on October 25, 2023.