U.S. Department of Education launches investigation of Edina school district

Edina High School
Two Edina High School students filed a federal complaint late last year, alleging the school district discriminated against them when they were suspended for using a pro-Palestinian chant during a walkout to protest the Israel-Hamas war.
MPR News file photo

The federal Department of Education has started an investigation into the Edina school district.

The Department of Education website doesn’t include information about the nature of the Title VI investigation, other than saying it started Jan. 30 and is focused on “national origin discrimination involving religion.”

But it comes after two Edina High School students filed a federal complaint late last year, alleging the school district discriminated against them when they were suspended for using a pro-Palestinian chant during a walkout to protest the Israel-Hamas war.

The students said the district accused them of being antisemitic for using the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” during the walkout.

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The Anti-Defamation League has called that phrase hateful and antisemitic.

Bruce Nestor, a cooperating attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations who filed the students’ federal complaint, said it’s “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.”

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.”

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, issued a statement Tuesday saying he’s “encouraged” by news of the Department of Education investigation.

“This is a step towards achieving justice for those unjustly singled out and mistreated,” he said.

In a statement, Edina Public Schools said it’s aware of the Department of Education investigation. The district said it affirms “its unwavering support for students’ First Amendment right to free expression and to peacefully advocate for causes that are important to them. Similarly, the district has strong policies prohibiting any type of discrimination against students based on their religion or any other basis protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”

Edina school district officials said they can’t comment on a specific case, but said “students do not have unfettered First Amendment rights while on school property and students do not have a right under the First Amendment to engage in speech that is substantially disruptive or that violates district policies.”

“Our core beliefs in Edina Public Schools are grounded in the inherent dignity of all people. We value and appreciate the diversity of all of our students. Edina Public Schools deeply condemns Islamophobia and antisemitism. We will not tolerate hateful or inappropriate comments or behaviors and will work diligently to provide a safe and inclusive environment for our students and staff,” the district statement said.

In January, the Department of Education launched an investigation into the University of Minnesota over allegations of antisemitism on the U’s Twin Cities campus.