Amid a rise in incidents of hate bias, racism, antisemitism and LGBTQ+ prejudice across Montgomery County Public Schools in recent months, the district is hosting a virtual event at Rockville High on April 27 where Superintendent Monifa McKnight will announce new “districtwide actions in response,” according to a press release.
“Superintendent Dr. McKnight will speak to this issue and its impact on the county’s children and school system. The superintendent will characterize the problem, issue a collective call to action and announce actions the school district will take moving forward,” the release states.
Antisemitism spikes countywide
Antisemitic incidents spiked 261% across Montgomery County last year, according to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League—and the county is well on its way to topping that figure for 2023, the ADL and police report.
On Dec. 17, Walt Whitman High School’s entrance sign was defaced with antisemitic graffiti reading “Jews not welcome here,” and several staff members at the Bethesda school reported receiving anonymous antisemitic emails the following day. In response, Whitman students organized a schoolwide walkout.
In January, swastikas were found drawn at three MCPS schools. The following month, the school district received nine reports of antisemitic incidents in one week. And in March, four incidents of antisemitic flyers found at Northwood High prompted the Silver Spring school to shutter its outdoor facilities indefinitely. Antisemitic incidents were reported at five other schools later that month.
In response, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) hosted two town halls with McKnight to give Jewish students and families an opportunity to dialogue with the superintendent about their experiences and concerns.
“Students spoke about the daily microaggressions they experience at school,” JCRC Associate Director Guila Siegel said after the second town hall in March. She said students described pennies being thrown at them, Holocaust jokes and heil Hitler salutes as being “a seamless, organic part of their school experience.”
Eighteen of the 65 incidents reported to the ADL across the county last year occurred on school grounds, ADL Regional Director Meredith Weisel told MoCo360.
“We’re definitely continuing to see a pattern of incidents in schools,” she said. “We’re also seeing a pattern of incidents in what we consider white supremacist propaganda—everything from flyers to stickers being distributed across the region.”
LGBTQ+ community targeted for inclusive curriculum
Montgomery County is not exempt to the increased targeting of the LGBTQ+ community—and particularly transgender people—as anti-trans legislation continues to be introduced by legislators nationwide.
MCPS continues to face backlash after introducing six LGBTQ-inclusive books to its supplemental curriculum for grades pre-K through five in January. In March, the district revised its policy to clarify that parents will not be notified or allowed to opt students out of reading these books in school.
Several parents have testified to the school board in opposition to the policy, including members of right-wing national group Moms for Liberty. School board member Lynne Harris (At-Large) has called these testimonies disturbing and emphasized the district’s support for transgender students.
“[Transgender students] not an ideology. They’re a reality,” she said at a January board meeting.
In February, Potomac’s Bells Mill Elementary launched an investigation and shifted a PTA meeting to virtual due to safety concerns after a video of a teacher reading one of the new books went viral on an anti-trans Twitter account. The school received an inundation of hate messages and threats following the tweet.
That same month, a teacher at Rockville’s Earle B. Wood Middle School discovered digital files on a student’s laptop referencing a “homophobic club hub,” prompting another investigation.
“With everything that’s been going on in our country lately, queer students and teachers alike have good reason to feel anxious,” Wootton High junior and LGBTQ advocate Gretchen Gilmore said in a March interview. “I think it’s going to take an undeniably affirming culture in our schools and school system to help alleviate that feeling, and I think that’s what we should be focusing on.”
The County Council recently reiterated its support for transgender and nonbinary residents by introducing a proclamation ahead of International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31.
Persistent, underreported racism
Byron Johns serves as president of the Parent’s Council for the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he co-founded a local advocacy group known as The Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence.
“Racism is a constant concern for Black and brown families in MCPS,” he said. “Certainly, since returning to in-person learning after the pandemic, there’s been a noticeable spike of issues, but they’re still relatively underreported.”
Johns said there are nuanced reasons why racist incidents tend to go unreported. For example, he said many Black people—particularly those with experience living in the South—are conditioned to ignore the racism they often face on a regular basis and can become desensitized to hate.
“There’s a lot of cultural history for Black folks that can discourage them from raising the issue,” he said, “even though we’ve seen some pretty flagrant events.”
Out of 100 hate bias incidents reported in MCPS this school year, 48% targeted race, according to a March 20 report before County Council. Johns noted that the school district tends to treat hate-based property damage like swastika drawings “more rapidly and aggressively” than verbal or physical racist actions against a student, which can deter students from reporting incidents when they feel targeted.
“Incidents of harm against individuals tend to need a higher level of proof for the school to take action,” he said. “There’s always this question of, ‘Well, what’s the other side of the story?’”
Last year, national nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium conducted a comprehensive Anti-Racist System Audit of MCPS following a series of racist incidents as well as ongoing achievement gaps among minority communities.
The audit concluded that families and students reported a prevalence of race-based bullying and discrimination in the school district and noted that MCPS “lacks a comprehensive district-wide system” to address the dismantling of racism within the school system.
“Ultimately, we want all communities to feel like they’re included and that the system isn’t imbalanced in how it treats different issues,” Johns said. “We’ve had all kinds of hate bias incidents occurring in schools, but racism hasn’t been getting the broad-based attention it needs. We’re excite to see MCPS putting in more effort.”
If MoCo360 keeps you informed, connected and inspired, circle up and join our community by becoming a member today. Your membership supports our community journalism and unlocks special benefits.