Firm Files Records Request with Sequoia Union

Weeks after a tense dispute over lessons about the conflict between Israel and Hamas at Menlo-Atherton High School was on display during a Sequoia Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting, ethnic studies teachers are now being asked to turn over materials and communications on the issue to comply with a public records request submitted by an advocacy group.

The Deborah Project, a law firm dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Jewish people in the education system, submitted a letter under the California Public Records Act to the district on Jan. 11 requesting various materials mentioning Israel, Palestine and Zionism, a movement to establish a Jewish nation state.

According to the letter, which was first reported on by Menlo-Atherton High School’s student newspaper, the M-A Chronicle, and shared with the Daily Journal Friday, the district is being asked to provide the organization with any course materials and communications pertaining to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, a terrorist organization prominent in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, starting Sept. 1 through the present.

“We’re handling this public records request just like we would any other. We’ll comply with the request according to the timeline outlined in our response,” district spokesperson Arthur Wilkie said in an email Friday, Feb. 2.

The request comes after dozens of parents shared outrage during a trustee meeting Jan. 17 over an ethnic studies lesson plan addressing the conflict between Israel and Hamas taught by two Menlo-Atherton High School educators.

Parents argued the lessons included inaccurate and antisemitic information and misrepresented the intentions of Hamas by presenting the organization as a resistance group rather than a terrorist organization. Some said they and their children no longer feel safe at the district and asked that officials take accountability for the lesson plans.

Alternatively, some educators, students and one of the educators accused of “indoctrinating” students with “Hamas propaganda” defended the lessons and educators. Students called the treatment of the educators unfair harassment, asserting the lessons were opportunities to have hard conversations on a tough subject.

Fellow educators also called on the board to issue a statement condemning the harassment of teachers and to develop protocol protecting teachers when attacked. More than 300 people, about half of whom were staff, had also signed a letter of support for the educators, said Melissa Diaz, a history teacher at Sequoia High School behind the letter.

“We as teachers recognize valid criticisms given in good faith in an attempt to grow our practice but no one deserves this level of punishment, scrutiny isolation and public attacks that Chloe has [received],” Diaz said in defense of Chloe Gentile-Montgomery, one of the two educators at the center of the conflict, during the meeting Jan. 17.

Ethnic studies courses have been a cause for concern for some in the county recently with one parent group submitting more than 800 letters to the San Mateo Union High School District demanding it review its curriculum after parents argued it minimizes the plight of Jewish people and uses a narrow ideology that tells students what to think. The district ultimately stood beside its curriculum and the staff charged to teach it.

All high school students will be required to complete an ethnic studies course to graduate starting the 2029-30 school year, following the signing of Assembly Bill 101 in 2021. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed an older version of the bill after many raised concerns the state’s proposed curriculum was problematic and minimized the histories of a number of groups including Jewish people.

Aside from Wilkie’s email statement, district leadership did not comment further on the controversial lesson plans or the request from the Deborah Project. Teacher union leadership also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Deborah Project, which did not respond to a request for comment Friday, is behind at least two cases with other Bay Area school districts. It’s suing the Hayward Unified School District to force it to comply with a public records request regarding a contract with a firm developing ethnic studies curriculum. The firm is also suing the Mountain View-Los Altos Union School District to gather more information on the district’s ethnic studies teaching.

“The Deborah Project is committed to exposing and ending attacks on Israeli-Americans, and the use of incendiary antisemitic materials, in California public schools,” read the firm’s website page detailing the case against the Mountain View-Los Altos Union School District.

sierra@smdailyjournal.com

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