Edina high school walkout (fightbacknews.org).
by Steve Timmer
May 14, 2024, 9:00 AM

Suppression of expression in Edina

Pro-Israel advocacy reaches into the high school

Immediately after the Hamas incursion into Israel on October 7, 2023, Israel-aligned advocacy organizations began efforts to manage the conversation about the emerging conflict between Israel and Hamas and limit anti-Israel dissent. You can see the effects of those efforts in schools, colleges, and universities around the country, and in free speech limiting legislation in Congress. In recent days, the U.S. House passed legislation that would declare “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” illegal and provide this broad definition to the U.S. Department of Education to enforce. The bill would have the practical effect of making the criticism of Israel unlawful discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the Minnesota delegation only Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar voted against it.

Expression suppression efforts at Edina High School

These efforts have occurred in Minnesota, too. In particular, in my own hometown of Edina, there were three interesting emails to the administration of the Edina Public Schools on the 10th of October of 2023.

First, at about ten o’clock in the morning, Edina House of Representatives member Heather Edelson sent an email to the superintendent, Stacie Stanley, which opened this way, and offered an endorsement of Ethan Roberts of the JCRC:

I want to connect you to the JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council] and my friend Ethan Roberts. I know you already have met with JCRC in the past but with the attacks in Israel this week, I am aware that American Jewish families in Edina are having a lot of emotions and also fear surface [sic] on what the war in Israel may mean for their families here.

Discussions about contextualizing [spinning, Ed.] the conflict and also ensuring that students know hate of any kind is not acceptable may be a good discussion for families and students. There is a lot of information that is in reels on tic tok and YouTube ans [sic] it’s always important to stay ahead of issues – hence this note.

Edelson is vice chair of the Education Finance committee in the House. The JCRC is an advocacy group, although it is taxed like a charity as a § 501 (c) (3) organization. As a lobbyist, Roberts was involved in the passage of the anti-BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction Israel) legislation by the Minnesota Legislature in 2017.

Second, a group of Jewish parents sent an email to the Edina school administration about noon that day expressing concern about pro-Palestinian sentiment at the high school. The JCRC was copied on the letter. A representative of the school board wrote back the same day, at about six o’clock in the evening, with a message that included this statement:

Our district is committed to a welcoming, inclusive school environment for all students.

Third, Roberts followed up on Edelson’s email with an email of his own at about two o’clock in the afternoon to Superintendent Stanley, copying Rep. Edelson, praising Rep. Edelson for providing a “first class education” to Minnesota students, and he offered to provide Edina schools with JCRC’s insights on how to manage discussions about Israel and Hamas. He also offered to have the JCRC meet with the Edina administration in the “days and weeks to come.” Roberts said they were trying to do that with many school districts.

On the 22nd of October, Roberts wrote again to Superintendent Stanley about a student walkout planned for October 24th, a “Walkout for Palestine.” He renewed a request for an online meeting, intimated that the district should not permit the walkout, asked for police presence if the walkout did occur, and said this:

Examples of rhetoric, which the vast majority of Jews find to be antisemitic, hateful or inappropriate, include chants of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be free,” false claims that Israel is committing “genocide” in its effort to defend itself from Hamas terrorism, or other rhetoric, and even threats of violence, which cross the line from legitimate criticism of Israel to language which dehumanizes Israelis and Jews, Jewish families and/or place Jewish students at the risk of physical harm.

The protest

The protest did take place on the afternoon of the 24th of October with estimates of perhaps a hundred students (out of about 2,700 at the school) taking part, and the district did make an effort to ensure a welcoming, inclusive school environment for all students.

Assistant Superintendent Randy Smasal and student protester

That’s Randy Smasal standing right behind and intimidating the diminutive protester while another faculty member glares at the protester. There is another staff member behind Smasal, and a fourth one in the background. Smasal is the Assistant Superintendent of the Edina Public Schools. (Fight Back News photo; used with permission.) The only threat of physical violence that day was apparently from the assistant superintendent.

The next day, of the hundred or so protesters, only two Somali American Muslim girls were suspended, for three days, for uttering the slogan, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,” that Ethan Roberts said should be verboten. The district said it did so because it made Jewish students “uncomfortable.” But that isn’t the test for the legitimate suppression of speech, even in a school environment. That’s what the Orwellian-named Moms for Liberty does: books about racism, slavery, and LGBTQ+ are all taboo to them because they make some people “uncomfortable.”

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), in a case involving the wearing of black arm bands to protest the Vietnam war, the Supreme Court held that even a K-12 school district could only suppress expressive conduct of a student when:

[T]he school officials must be able to prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school.

None of the other students who participated in the walkout were punished, even though they disrupted the operation of the school just as much, and the two who did receive suspensions got them because of the advice of the JCRC’s Ethan Roberts. The suspensions were summary, and without apparent opportunity for the girls to explain that the slogan means different things to different people, or to them.

To some people, other than the JCRC, the slogan means the end to the brutal, apartheid treatment of Palestinians by Israel, well documented, but Ethan Roberts and the JCRC got to define the language here. As we’ll see, even Roberts later admits his interpretation is not universal.

The JCRC had a follow-up Zoom meeting with the district administration several days later, to reinforce its message and to keep the district from going wobbly.

The fallout of student suspensions

When the story of the suspensions broke in the Star Tribune in late November, a community protest was organized to take place at a December 11th school board meeting, demanding the reversal of the suspensions. Before the meeting, Ethan Roberts sent another email to the superintendent, saying:

On behalf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), we thank Edina Public Schools (EPS) for accepting the consensus [read: “our”] perspective of Minnesota’s Jewish community that the slogan “from the River to the Sea…” is antisemitic and threatening to the safety of your Jewish students.

We understand that advocates who are not Jewish have publicly challenged this assessment by EPS that this phrase is antisemitic and plan to protest at the Edina School Board meeting tonight (as tonight is the 5th night of Hanukkah and our annual party, we will not be in attendance).

Roberts went on to say other Israel advocacy groups had the same view of the slogan as he did. No surprise there.

The Star Tribune reported that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) has filed a Title VI discrimination complaint against the Edina Public Schools. That complaint is pending. Of course, the complaint would be toast if the House-passed amendment to Title VI, referred to above, was current law.

Article XIII, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution, called the Education Clause, requires the state to maintain a system of public education because the “republican [from res publica] form of government” depends on the intelligence of its citizens. Part of a democratic, public intelligence is learning to make and hear political expression, even when it is disputatious.

The Edina Public Schools failed its essential mission here. It failed the two suspended students, too, but it provided an early glimpse of efforts that Israel-aligned advocacy groups and educational institutions were going to make to suppress speech critical of Israel.

I sent a draft of this story to the Edina Public Schools late last Thursday afternoon, May 9th, offering a chance to comment. As of publication time of this story, I’ve not had a response from the district.

(N.B. The quotes in this article are all taken from documents recently obtained and which were produced by the school district in response to a data practices request. You can read the documents in a published archive here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/24484655-edina-high-school-response-to-data-request-about-2023-studentg-suspensions. The documents are in more-or-less reverse chronological order.)

Update 5/16: Please read this terrific commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from my friend Ahmed Tharwat:

What Biden forgot in his Holocaust Memorial speech

A quote which should have some resonance here:

The truth that Biden forgot is that antiwar is not antisemitic, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, and “from the river to the sea” is not antisemitic — it is about the freedom of the Palestinians and the equality of everyone.

*  *  *

An aside: I have lived in Edina for 45 years. It has changed a lot in that time, but a constant has been an answer to the question, “Why did you move to Edina?” That answer is never to be close to Southdale or the Braemar golf course; it’s invariably because of the strong public school system. Edina’s public schools have made a substantial effort over the last several years to become more inclusive and welcoming places for everybody as the student body has become more diverse. Edina’s only Education Minnesota Teacher of the Year was Jackie Roehl. Jackie was responsible for initiating the All of All Program to break down barriers among students.

That effort was met with some resistance, including by the district’s constant ideological critic, Katherine Kersten. She and the organization she works for, the Center of the American Experiment, tried to influence a local school board election in the fall of 2017 by touting candidates – and getting one elected for one term – and publishing an expensive article in a “magazine,” critical of All for All, that was distributed throughout the city. I wrote about that a couple of times, including here:

Multiculturalism is the root of all evil

I’ve always supported the district’s efforts to be a welcoming, inclusive school environment for all students.

Which is why I find the district’s response to the events recounted here to be so dispiriting. I don’t enjoy criticizing a school district that I think is great, and which educated my kids very well.

But I think there was a giant misstep here, and that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

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