As parents of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, African and South Asian students who attend public schools in Howard County and Montgomery County, and as stakeholders in the future of our school system, we are alarmed by the lack of resources, support systems and empathy provided to students and families affected by the violence in Palestine and Israel. We are disturbed by instances of suppression of free speech and intimidation in our schools. These are not the lessons we want our children to learn.
We extend our empathy and care to all those subjected to violence in the region, including Israeli civilians harmed by the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and the more than 11,000 Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli military in subsequent weeks. We are deeply concerned about the rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia here at home. School district leaders, principals, and educators have an important role to play in setting a tone of mutual respect and care in our schools. They must ensure that students have the support and resources they need to feel safe, to learn and to express their concerns. They must also demonstrate that students are supported in exercising their rights and engaging in dialogue.
What we have seen, however, is a lack of empathy, repression of speech and intimidation occurring at schools in the area. In both Howard and Montgomery counties, formal statements have not gone far enough and have failed to adequately mention the effects of the current climate on Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students. For example, in Montgomery County, a statement highlighted possible antisemitic activity, but it did not address Islamophobia. The Howard County superintendent’s initial community letter Oct. 26 — as both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents have risen across the U.S. — mentioned outreach and support for Jewish communities. After receiving complaints, the superintendent issued a clarification Oct. 27 stating that the initial community letter “should have also explicitly acknowledged Islamophobia.”
Words matter, and our students and families can see the differences in how school districts are reacting at this time. One-sided public statements about the situation in Palestine and Israel that omit historic struggles and the humanity of Muslim, Palestinian and Arab communities contribute to hostile school environments, bullying, harassment and retaliation.
Beyond statements, schools must make space for students to express their concerns through protected political speech. Yet, we are witnessing alarming incidents at Maryland schools. At a public forum, students from Wilde Lake High School testified about what they said was an inadequate expression of concern by Howard County Public Schools about the Israeli military’s attacks in Gaza and the deaths of Palestinians there. One of us had direct conversations with a student at a Howard County high school, who shared that school administrators threatened to withdraw support from a student-organized walkout if signs referenced “Gaza” or “Palestine.” Ultimately, the school allowed the walkout but confiscated signs from students that read: “End the Siege.”
School leaders need clear guidance that expressions of solidarity with Palestinians or critiques of the Israeli government do not amount to antisemitism, which is a serious form of discrimination that should be addressed in every context.
Schools must engage in direct and consistent outreach to Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and Jewish parents and families; offer culturally sensitive counseling resources; and train administrators and teachers on antisemitism and Islamophobia. Additionally, schools should consult with specialists to ensure that curricular content related to Israel and Gaza offers accurate historical perspectives.
Finally, we recommend that Maryland public schools develop safe spaces for dialogues between Muslim, Palestinian, Arab and Jewish students that encourage curiosity, share factual information and create agreements for dealing with conflict and disagreement.
As we all shoulder the weight of this heartbreaking moment in history, we must be sensitive to the experiences of all people. Our school communities, led by the teachers, principals, and administrators, must clearly communicate affirming and inclusive messages and resources to Palestinian-American, Muslim and Arab students, those perceived to be Arab, and their families. It is not too late to do that. In doing so, we can truly foster a community of care and inclusion for everyone.
Aisha Alizai, Hiruy Hadgu and Daljit Soni are parents of Howard County students. Deepa Iyer and Jumana Musa are parents of Montgomery County students.