In Philadelphia, educators rally for Palestine


Hundreds of high school students, teachers, parents and community supporters rallied outside the Philadelphia Board of Education on May 30 to support educators and students who have been censored or disciplined for speaking about Palestine.  After a rally that lasted for about an hour, several students went inside to attend the monthly school board meeting, which was closed to anyone who had not registered to speak.

May 30, 2024 protest, Philadelphia. WW Photo: Betsy Piette

The rally was called by Philly Educators for Palestine, which was organized over the last few months after the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) failed to protect students and staff advocating for education about Palestine and for an end to Israel’s genocide in Gaza. A flash point came in February when the SDP decided to remove a student video podcast about Palestinian art that was part of a broader project on how Indigenous people use art as an act of resistance to oppression.

After the podcast was shared at an assembly in Northeast High School, a teacher who opposed the project shared photos of the students online, exposing them to doxing and other threats. Keziah Ridgeway, the teacher who developed the broader project about art and Indigenous peoples, has also received threats.

About 100 activists were able to crowd into the closed-door monthly Board of Education meeting to demand that the board and Superintendent Tony Watlington address their concerns that the district censored the student project.

Speaking at the meeting, Hazel Heiko, a student at Northeast High School student, told the board: “You cannot continue to not allow us to speak about genocide. We see the reality on our phones. All of us have access to it. And that does not stop even though you are not allowing us to talk about it in school.

Heiko concluded: “We will not always be in school. We will not always be young. We need to learn now when we have the opportunity to talk about uncomfortable things.” (Chalkbeat Philadelphia, May 30)

Even though the Board restricted admission to the meeting, demonstrators gathered outside the room and in a spill-over space kept up steady chants in support of Palestine throughout the meeting.

Petition with six demands

In April, Philly Educators for Palestine began circulating a petition with six demands for the school district of Philadelphia. To date the petition has gathered over 700 signatures from staff, students, parents and others. 

During the rally before the board meeting, speakers took turns addressing the demands, including that “the district condemn the ongoing genocide waged on the Palestinian people, as well as in Sudan, Congo and Haiti. They call on the district to protect students’ rights, well-being and confidentiality when they choose to speak about Palestine, Islamophobia or racism; and that the district follow up promptly with concerns about discriminatory treatment or suppression of student speech.”

The PEFP petition further demands that “the district take resolute actions to protect the confidentiality, freedom of speech and professional reputation of its students and staff. That the district allows for the facilitation of honest, critical pursuit of history and diverse views thereof, including the history of Palestine, and that the district allows for robust professional development opportunities that highlight diverse perspectives and welcome dialogue.”

At the outside rally, speakers demanded that the district take steps necessary to encourage conversations about Palestine in the classrooms. PEFP’s flier calls on the school district “to condemn Israel’s genocide against Palestinians, protect staff and students who are advocating for the human rights of Palestinians and allow space for uncomfortable conversations in schools that are necessary for student learning.”

Even before the May 30 rally, high school students from across Philadelphia have engaged in multiple walkouts demanding justice for Palestine.

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