May 25, 2018
Superintendent Kathy Rehfield-Pelles
335 Adams Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Dear Superintendent Rehfield-Pelles:
We write on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the oldest and one of the largest pro-Israel organizations in the U.S., whose mission includes fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias in schools, on college campuses, and other venues.
We were shocked and outraged to learn that on May 15, toward the end of the school day at The Beacon School – a New York City public high school – a student made a special announcement over the school’s public address system, requesting a moment of silence for those who were killed along the Gaza border with Israel. Please make no mistake: The “victims” were trying to breach the border, enter Israel and murder innocent Israeli Jews. The student’s public address announcement was delivered without warning and it disrupted regular school activities. Students who were in class, studying, or taking an exam were interrupted and forced to stop what they were doing, regardless of whether they had an interest or desire to participate in a silent tribute to these violent rioters.
One New York City parent put this silent tribute in the proper context. Silent tributes at Beacon are extremely rare. The school has never held a silent tribute for the estimated 400,000 Syrians killed by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its allies, or for the thousands of Palestinian Arabs slaughtered in Syrian refugee camps, or for the gay men executed by hanging in Iran, or for the women murdered by stoning or in “honor killings” in countries like Pakistan. Yet The Beacon School authorized a silent tribute for Gazans who were mostly terrorists aiming to storm Israel’s border and murder Israeli Jews. Who made the judgment to allow this silent tribute and why?
It is our understanding that school officials approved the silent tribute, but we do not know specifically who considered the request and authorized it. Many Beacon School parents have tried to get answers to these and other questions and concerns from Ruth Lacey, Beacon’s principal, as well as other school officials, without success. Ms. Lacey has seemingly built a wall around herself. She has not issued any school-wide statements or explanations to Beacon’s families. She has refused to comment in the numerous media reports about this incident.
We understand that Ms. Lacey agreed to meet with parents next Tuesday, May 29. This meeting, however, is not open to all parents, even though many of them are understandably troubled and appalled by Beacon’s decision to permit a student to use the school’s resources on school time to promote her personal political views by mourning the deaths of Hamas terrorists. Only a very small and select number of parents are reportedly allowed to attend the meeting with Ms. Lacey. No one seems to know who these parents are or how they were chosen. This meeting is obviously intended to create the impression that Ms. Lacey is responsive to parents’ justifiable concerns, while in fact, the principal is insulating herself from full accountability to the school community for the decision that was made on May 15.
Simply put, Ruth Lacey’s handling of this entire incident is disgraceful and unacceptable. She is ultimately responsible for this exercise of poor judgment and for the school’s violation of a regulation of the Chancellor prohibiting school facilities from being used for partisan politics. We call on you to undertake an immediate and thorough investigation of this entire incident, to determine (1) who at The Beacon School was consulted about the public address announcement made on May 15; (2) who was involved in making the decision to allow it; (3) who ultimately authorized it; and (4) how all the wrongdoers, including Ms. Lacey, will be held accountable.
We also call on you to determine whether Ms. Lacey should be terminated from her position at Beacon, not only based on her handling of this particular incident, but also on other examples (described below) of a lack of leadership, poor communication with Beacon School parents, and bad and seemingly biased judgment negatively affecting students.
Using School Resources to Request a Silent Tribute for those Killed on the Gaza Border – Most of whom were Terrorists – was Reprehensible
Many parents at The Beacon School are understandably outraged that the school day of the entire student body was disrupted by a moment of silence to pay tribute to those killed on the Gaza border – particularly since the overwhelming number of “victims” were Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists (50 of the 62 killed were with Hamas, and 3 of the 62 were with Islamic Jihad) with one goal only – to storm Israel’s borders and murder Jews. No school should be promoting a moment of silence for terrorists who were using machine guns, Molotov cocktails, meat cleavers, improvised explosive devices, grenades, and “kite bombs” painted with swastikas to infiltrate and burn Israel’s sovereign territory and attack innocent Israeli civilians who live only minutes from the Gaza border. These terrorists were chillingly clear about their deadly aims. Yahiya Sinwar, a Hamas political leader, stated: “We will take down the border [with Israel] and we will tear their hearts from their bodies.” On Facebook, Hamas reportedly posted maps to show the quickest routes from the Gaza border to Israeli homes, schools, and day care centers near the border.
As for the small number of Gaza civilians who were killed, they were put in harm’s way by the terrorist group Hamas, which controls Gaza. Hamas reportedly provided free transportation to Gazans – including women and children – to the border with Israel, and paid $14.00 a person or $100.00 a family for their attendance – and $500.00 if they managed to get injured.
As the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman wrote, “Let there be no mistake. Every life is equally precious, whether Jewish, Palestinian or other. But no nation should ever be called upon to sacrifice its own citizens to preserve the lives of aggressive infiltrators intent on murder and mayhem.”
It was disgraceful and intolerable that Beacon used school resources to promote a silent tribute to these terrorists. Indeed, using school facilities and supplies to promote any political message during school time on school property is a violation of a New York City school regulation issued by the Chancellor.
Using School Resources for Any Political Expression is Unlawful
On June 22, 2009, the New York City School Chancellor promulgated Regulation D-130, which provides that “[s]chool buildings are not public forums for purposes of community or political expression.” The regulation specifically prohibits school facilities, equipment and supplies from being used for partisan politics. It also puts the responsibility on the principal to ensure that unauthorized material is not posted, distributed or displayed.
When Regulation D-130 was challenged as a violation of the First Amendment and the New York Constitution, a federal district court in New York upheld it as a reflection of the Board of Education’s and New York City’s legitimate interest in “avoiding the entanglement of their public educational mission in partisan politics.” Weingarten v. Board of Education, 680 F. Supp. 2d 595, 602 (S.D.N.Y. 2010).
In Weingarten, the court considered whether Regulation D-130 could constitutionally bar teachers from wearing political buttons – a different problem from the one you are facing here. But the court in Weingarten emphasized several principles underlying the regulation which apply here, too.
The court noted that the regulation was a reflection of the Board of Education’s legitimate “wish to maintain neutrality on controversial issues.” Id. at 601. When teachers display political partisanship in school to a captive audience of students, they are impinging on students’ rights “to learn in an environment free of partisan political influence.” Id. As the New York City School Chancellor explained, students would be wrongly sent “the message that the view expressed carries the support of the school system.” Id. at 597-98.
The incident at Beacon does not involve the speech of teachers. It was a student who spoke, but her speech was not “private” protected speech. The student delivered her message on school property during the school day and over the school’s public address system, subject to the control of school officials and with their approval. In these circumstances, other students would undoubtedly perceive her message as stamped with the school’s seal of approval; in fact, her message caused students who objected to it to feel isolated and offended. Cf. Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) (student’s invocations over the school’s public address system prior to school football games were not constitutionally-protected “private speech”; they were authorized by the school, delivered on school property at school-sponsored and school-related events and would be impermissibly perceived as school sponsorship of a religious message).
We are not suggesting that political and controversial topics are off-limits at Beacon, or that students should be precluded from expressing their political views. Indeed, the New York City Department of Education issued a Bill of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which sets forth a number of ways in which students can express opinions and discuss issues. These include, for example, participating in student government and student organizations, publishing school newspapers and newsletters, posting bulletin board notices, and circulating leaflets. The Bill makes it clear that even the exercise of these rights can be regulated and restricted. The right to freedom of expression cannot, for example, “materially disrupt the school, cause substantial disorder or invade the rights of others.” Significantly, there is nothing in the Bill of Student Rights and Responsibilities that authorizes a student to use the school’s public address system – holding hostage the entire student body – to protest and mourn the deaths of terrorists, or to express any other point of view.
It was wrong and in violation of Regulation D-130 to make the entire student body a captive audience to one student’s speech, and entangle the school in partisan politics. Those who authorized the use of the school’s public address system, so that one student could impinge on the rights of others by calling for a tribute to terrorists bent on murdering Jews, must be held accountable. As principal, Ruth Lacey is accountable, no matter what.
The Principal has a History of Failed Leadership, Poor Communication and Bad and Seemingly Biased Judgment
We understand from Beacon School parents that this is not the only example of Principal Lacey’s lack of leadership, poor communication and bad judgment. Parents tell us that Ms. Lacey is generally a poor and infrequent communicator, typically avoiding speaking at parent association meetings unless she is asking parents for donations to support the school.
In or about 2015, a Jewish student was compelled to leave Beacon and transfer elsewhere after she was lambasted by other students for noting – correctly – that religious extremism, including radical Islam, can cause violence and war. This student was physically threatened for expressing her view; one of her peers reportedly told her, “I’m going to rearrange your face.” She was also ostracized by friends and schoolmates, and harassed and bullied with hundreds of Facebook posts, such as “You white privileged Jewish bitch,” “Zionism is racism,” and “We’re not your Arab slaves.”
Instead of fulfilling her legal obligation to protect this student from the harassment and bullying she was enduring and holding the bullies accountable, Ms. Lacey reportedly admonished the victim herself, telling this young woman that she was “too opinionated.” According to the Jewish student’s father, Ms. Lacey refused to take any concrete remedial action; the student ultimately decided to transfer to another school. It is deeply concerning that Ms. Lacey chose complacency instead of leadership. The principal should have done everything in her power to ensure that the Jewish student could stay and flourish at Beacon. Ms. Lacey should have used her authority to protect the student’s sense of safety and well-being, and imposed appropriate consequences on the bullies who targeted the student simply for expressing her personal point of view, which happened to be accurate.
A Thorough Investigation is Essential
For all these reasons, an immediate and thorough investigation is necessary, to address the following issues:
- Who was consulted before the public address announcement on May 15?
- Who authorized it?
- What steps will the school be taking to hold all wrongdoers accountable?
- What steps will the school be taking to answer parents’ questions fully, address students’ anxieties and concerns, and ensure that this error in judgment is not repeated?
- How will Ruth Lacey and other wrongdoers be held accountable?
- Does Ms. Lacey’s pattern of behavior – failed leadership, complacency, lack of communication, and poor judgment – warrant her termination as principal of The Beacon School?
We look forward to your prompt response and are here to help in any way. Please know that we, like many parents at The Beacon School, are unwilling to let this matter drop or be swept under the rug. If you won’t act promptly to address this situation, then we will make sure it is fully and fairly addressed by others in a position to help.
Very truly yours,
cc: Chancellor Richard A. Carranza, New York City Department of Education
Howard Friedman, General Counsel, New York City Department of Education
New York City Council Member Corey Johnson
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer