Two Edina High School students have filed a federal complaint alleging the school district discriminated against them when they were suspended for three days for using a pro-Palestinian chant during a walkout to protest the Israel-Hamas war.
The “Walkout for Palestine” took place in late October. A student social media account associated with the event said it was meant to raise awareness of the conflict and protest the children and civilians killed in Gaza during recent bombings.
The students say the district accused them of being antisemitic for using the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” during the walkout.
The Anti-Defamation League has called this slogan hateful and antisemitic, saying it is used by groups that seek Israel’s destruction and that it is “fundamentally a call for a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, territory that includes the State of Israel.”
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The lawyer who filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said the phrase was meant to show the rights of Palestinian people.
“It is an aspirational call for a country within the territory of Historic Palestine, which is free for all people, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and it is not a call to in any way, be antisemitic or target Jews with any type of harm or harassment,” Bruce Nestor, a cooperating attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told reporters Monday.
Nestor said the suspensions to the students, who are of Somali descent, were based purely on their speech and also constituted “discrimination on the basis of religion and national origin.”
The district has not commented on the phrase, but, in its written statement, said it condemns Islamophobia and antisemitism and won’t tolerate “hateful or inappropriate comments or behaviors.”
The district has said it’s aware of the legal action. In a written statement, it said it would not comment on individual student situations or on legal actions.
It did say it supported students’ First Amendment rights to free expression, but added that students don’t have “unfettered First Amendment rights while on school property,” and that the First Amendment didn’t allow students to engage in “substantially disruptive” speech or to violate district policies.
Nestor said the suspensions were disproportionate and raised concerns the district has made statements recognizing the stress and trauma students might experience when learning about the October attacks on Israel but hasn’t made similar statements acknowledging trauma Muslim students might experience due to harm caused to Palestinians. The district did not respond to MPR News requests for copies of these statements before publication.
Leaders of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter said their office has seen a significant uptick in students, teachers, families and school administrators who say they’re experiencing Islamophobia.
Jaylani Hussein, the chapter’s executive director, asked teachers and school leaders to check in with their Muslim and Jewish students to see how they’re feeling and make sure they’re being supported.
“We’re calling for Muslim and Jewish parents to reach out to all of their schools, middle school, elementary school and high school,” Hussein said. “We believe that there is a great deal of bullying that is happening, that many students are not bringing it home or not reporting it. And we are deeply concerned about the impact of this bullying.”