Parent leaders elected to an advisory panel on education policies are resisting Schools Chancellor David Banks’ demands they hold meetings in-person, citing ongoing threats over their support of a cease-fire in Gaza.
Members of Community Education Council 14 said they’ve recently received threatening voicemails and even a package of feces in the mail because of their November declaration calling for a cease-fire. Some parents have said the council’s advocacy is “completely inappropriate,” and allege the council has booted Jewish or pro-Israel attendees from recent virtual meetings.
The ongoing controversy prompted Banks to summon council members to the Education Department’s headquarters Wednesday over their refusal to comply with a law requiring their meetings be in-person and open to the public.
But after the hours-long sit-down with Banks’ lieutenants, members of the council based in north Brooklyn stopped short of agreeing to follow the law.
“Our issue continues to be that there is no recourse for the danger we are currently in,” said council President Tajh Sutton.
The ongoing dispute comes one week after Banks delivered a speech promising to meet the moment “head-on” and touting new resources for educators to navigate “difficult conversations” with students about Israel’s war against Hamas. Hours after the council refused to follow Banks’ orders, there was a large pro-Israel protest at education department headquarters.
Members of Community Education Council 14 and the pro-Israel protesters both said Banks’ response to the war had been lacking.
“We made it very clear that we’re not just going to jump into an in-person meeting because the compliance conversation can’t happen without the safety conversation, and [education department officials] do not have an adequate response,” Sutton said, explaining why the council was not yet ready to return to in-person meetings.
An offer from the education department to send police to upcoming council meetings did not satisfy Sutton.
In a statement, education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer affirmed the agency’s commitment to safety, but emphasized the need for the Community Education Council to meet in person and in public as required.
“Chancellor Banks has repeatedly said, every student and parent deserves safety and respect in their school community,” Styer said. “We will continue to work with CEC 14 to offer supports to ensure their meetings can be held safely and in compliance with state law.”
Members of Community Education Councils are elected to their posts and have an advisory role on education policies.
The education department has warned the members of CEC 14 – which has a history of activism for progressive causes – that the law requires they be physically present for meetings. If they don’t follow the rules, they can be suspended or removed from their elected positions.
In addition to the cease-fire resolution, CEC members supported a student walkout for the same cause.
“For the past four months New York City public school students, parents and families have been under attack simply for daring to say that Palestinian students, families and teachers have a right … to talk about current events,” said Sutton. She urged Banks to do more to address hate speech and harassment.
Council members shared with Gothamist a threatening voicemail left at their office smearing them as Neo-Nazis. Sutton and dozens of other parents and educators rallied outside education department headquarters before the meeting with Banks’ deputies.
But other parents are concerned about the council’s behavior.
Parent Leah Wiseman Fink called the CEC’s pro-Palestinian activism a “completely inappropriate use of the school board platform.” She pointed to language in materials distributed by the CEC that she found offensive.
Fink said she and other Jewish or pro-Israel parents have been blocked from the council’s virtual meetings.
“A lot of people with Jewish last names were rejected,” she said. “I’m really heartbroken that this is what’s happening and surprised, frankly. I just did not think it would come to this.”
Sutton denied that participants have been blocked because of their ethnicity or views.
“That hasn’t happened,” she said. “What does happen sometimes is someone is either spreading misinformation or being vitriolic in the chat [and is blocked]…but it had nothing to do with this particular issue or their ethnicity.”
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, prompting Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza. At least 27,000 people have been killed during Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.
The conflict has created discord in some city schools. In November, a protest targeting a pro-Israel teacher turned chaotic at Hillcrest High School, grabbing national headlines. A map at PS 261 in Brooklyn that omitted Israel ignited a firestorm earlier this month.
Last week, Banks announced new resources on the conflict, including instructional materials on Islamophobia and antisemitism.
“Hate and harassment of any kind are unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our schools. No member of our school community should ever ever feel in danger or attacked,” Banks said last week.
“When hate rears its head in our schools because of Islamophobia, antisemitism or any form of bigotry, we will respond.”
Hours after the education council members rallied with other pro-Palestinian supporters on the steps of the education department’s headquarters, hundreds of pro-Israel students, educators, parents and others also gathered there, calling for Banks to take stronger action to prevent antisemitism in schools.
A truck with a digital poster of Banks circled the block. The poster read, “Shame on NYC Public Schools: Chancellor is failing to create a hate free education.”
Public school teacher Tova Plaut said Jewish students have been called “baby killer” by classmates. She is part of a newly formed group called NYCPS Alliance dedicated to calling out allegedly antisemitic educators and officials. The alliance has targeted members of the education council.
Gabriel Makovoz, a high school student at Brooklyn Tech, said he has encountered students “I used to call friends proudly justifying the abduction of civilians while claiming they only want peace.”