Board Meeting Erupts Into Arguments Over Ethnic Studies Lesson

6 mins read

The M-A Chronicle previously published an article about the controversial Ethnic Studies lesson and has since published an article about a Public Records Request asking for teacher emails and lessons relating to ethnic studies and Israel and Palestine.

The Sequoia Union High School District’s (SUHSD) Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday was one of the most chaotic board meetings in recent memory, with teachers and parents at odds over a recent M-A Ethnic Studies lesson involving the Israel-Hamas conflict taught by two Ethnic Studies teachers. Over 60 people spoke regarding the issue during the Board’s public comment which lasted for over an hour. At one point, a verbal conflict arose between a community member and an M-A student, which led to multiple audience members yelling and police being called. 

Ethnic Studies teacher and Black Student Union (BSU) advisor Chloe Gentile-Montgomery, one of the teachers who presented the slide deck, has been the main recipient of the backlash over the lesson. Gentile-Montgomery, who is currently on work leave as she “does not feel safe” at M-A, publicly addressed the issue for the first time at the meeting through Zoom during public comment. 

Throughout the night, audience members condemned the slideshow, many calling it “propaganda,” and one referring to it as “Hamas propaganda.” The most common concern audience members raised was that the slideshow encouraged antisemitism. One community member, Noa Glaser, referring to a slide from the lesson that gave a general definition for dominant narratives, said, “I would be no less appalled than if I saw the Sambo blackface or the Yellow Peril. The imagery of the Jewish puppet master controlling the world was just one of the images that were unironically displayed in this one-sided lesson.” 

Hila Maoz, a parent with a child at M-A added, “This is a presentation that spreads hatred. My daughter was harassed. You’re talking about harassment toward the teacher, but we as Israelis and Jews are being harassed, we are targeted and we no longer feel at home.”

A prospective parent, Meromit Singer, said “When I saw the slides from the lesson being discussed I was shocked to my core. This [slideshow] makes me, my family, and our community feel the extreme opposite of included. It makes us feel hated and singled out and definitely makes me feel unsafe to send my children to M-A.”

Teachers emotional over comments made at the meeting

Sequoia High School history teacher Diana Nguyen, who was part of the original Ethnic Studies course proposal team and coauthored a petition in defense of Gentile-Montgomery, said, “We want to name what is happening in the world and have really hard conversations with our students. At this moment it does mean teaching about Israel and Palestine. There is no perfect way to do this, but we have to have trust, and we cannot let harassment and intimidation govern our students’ education.”

A community member who identified herself as Nehi said, “As the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, when I saw the slideshow I was shocked to be living in California and see such an antisemetic slideshow. It’s inaccurate, it’s ignorant. This is not education, this is propaganda.”

Gentile-Montgomery defended the lesson she taught, saying, “My lesson plan has been taken outside of context. I added additional nuance during the lesson which is not included on the slides. I did not receive any complaints from students or parents. Instead, people went directly to the principal, superintendent, and Board. I am upset about the assumptions that have been made about my ancestry: I come from Black, Italian, and Jewish ancestry.” 

She added, “I can’t help but feel that these attacks are somewhat race-based as I am the only Black credentialed teacher.”

M-A Ethnic Studies teacher Lan Nguyen came to her colleague’s defense, saying, “I want to speak about the harassment towards my colleague Chloe, which includes anonymous emails calling her names, posters placed on her door, and inappropriate materials placed in her mailbox disguised as a holiday present. I fear that I am next in line for harassment. I’ve asked the District and site admin what they will do to keep us safe and there has been no commitment to act.” 

Sign held by student which later caused verbal altercation.
Sign held by M-A student that caused incident

Woodside history teacher Gregory Gruszynski said, “I stand in solidarity with my colleague at Menlo-Atherton High School: I am a white man who has been teaching about Israel and Palestine for over two decades and have never faced this level of harassment.”

Pablo Aguilera, a DEI partner at the District said, “Every educator in this District has taught a lesson, regardless of intent, that has caused harm, yet were given the grace to grow. Why are we not giving her the same room to grow? Why are we doing the opposite with Montgomery?”

Many parents refuted the accusations of racism. Parent Ken Rutsky said, “We will not be quiet. This is not racism. This has nothing to do with Ms. Montgomery’s race.” Some also prefaced their comments by saying that they did not know Gentile-Montgomery’s race. A parent said, “I want to make it clear that I was completely unaware of the teacher’s race and it’s got nothing to do with why I’m here today.”

This is not the first SUHSD Board meeting to feature disruptions from the audience, but it is the first where the Board President took such an active role in quieting the audience. Both Board President Shawneece Stevenson and Associate Superintendent Bonnie Hanson, at separate times during the meeting, went into the audience to comfort a student and defuse conflicts. During the course of the meeting, the crowd frequently interrupted with clapping, cheering, and booing, all of which are against board policy.  

Community member involved in incident with student

One instance, in particular, involving an M-A student and community member incited a heated argument amongst the audience and culminated in a staff member calling the police. 

The student held up a sign that reportedly read, “Let’s not forget that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] lied about the beheading of babies,” and in response, a community member called on the Board for the sign’s removal. The member then attempted to confront the student and reportedly took a photo of them. The student left the room in tears and, as the audience erupted into arguments, the board went into recess. Woodside teacher Julie Marten said, “Earlier in the meeting, the community member was very agitated and harassing speakers visually.” 

Stevenson attempts to silence audience members

As the community member attempted to speak, Stevenson repeatedly talked over him, saying, “No, no, we are not doing this,” in order to quiet the room and addressed the community  member directly, emphasizing “This is the Board’s meeting.” 

She said, “I am asking you to be a model for our students. [The student] is under 18. I am not justifying anybody but we are not treating our students like this,” and the crowd quieted. Some audience members called for his removal but Stevenson walked away. A defender of the audience member yelled out, “This isn’t the place for students.” The community member also tried to speak after public comments.

Stevenson comforts the distraught student

During the recess, a microphone was accidentally left unmuted on the Zoom meeting, and two staff members could be overheard discussing that the police were called. However, the police never entered the meeting.

Sequoia District Teachers Association President Edith Salvatore addressed both the concerns of Jewish parents and the treatment of Gentile-Montgomery. 

She said, “I want to remind the Board that over the last handful of years, I’ve stood here and told you that it is difficult to be a Jewish student and a Jewish educator in this school district.” 

She then addressed the lesson: “People can make mistakes: a slideshow is not a lesson; it must be taken in the context of what happened in the classroom. Intent and impact are different, both are important, and both should be respected. When errors are made, criticism is vital and corrections and reteaching is always possible.”

SDTA President Edith Salvatore addresses the Sequoia Union High School District about antisemitism and the ethnic studies presentation.
Salvatore addresses the Board and community members

She continued, “Anonymous community members have targeted a singular teacher, ignoring that she is also a human being. I’ve been the recipient of anonymous and not-so-anonymous attacks by community members who disagree with comments during board meetings. That Board did not protect me then. It hurts me that our District has not learned how to handle these issues better.”

Salvatore called out the administration for not handling the issue better. “Let me be clear; the fact that we are here today having heard over an hour of passionate speakers is a result of administrative failure. The administration has failed to protect a teacher from harassment and equally has failed to communicate to parents that there has been a recognition that the slideshow was flawed, and a willingness to reteach.” She then called on the Board to publicly support teachers who teach complex, contemporary topics, and give them the opportunity to acknowledge their mistakes without fear of harassment. 

Updated 1/31/2024: We previously included a quote saying that there was only one teacher in the History Department with an Ethnic Studies degree. We have since removed this quote because there are at least two teachers with Ethnic Studies degrees.

Arden Margulis is a junior and in his second year of journalism at the M-A Chronicle. He is the M-A Chronicle's Webmaster. During his first year, Arden wrote a two-part series on Paper Tutoring, which won First Place News Story from Santa Clara University. Arden was a finalist for Writer of the Year from the National Scholastic Press Association. Arden writes the M-A Chronicle's weekly newsletter Bear Tracks and is currently managing Public Records Act requests to three school districts and two public agencies.

Ameya is a junior in his second year of journalism. He enjoys writing stories about education, sports, and local news and politics. In his free time he enjoys spending time with friends and watching movies.

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