The Israel-Hamas war is a hot-button issue. How K-12 schools are addressing it.

Students and educators in K-12 schools report varying degrees of support.

December 21, 2023, 12:55 PM

Discussions about the Israel-Hamas war are sparking tensions around the United States.

Colleges are dealing with a surge in protests and complaints about antisemitism and Islamophobia with federal investigations being conducted into them.

But how are K-12 classrooms around the country navigating the thorny issue?

ABC News interviewed several students and educators and found that the answer varies. Some states and school districts have issued guidance to their educators on this issue, with some teachers feeling supported in their efforts to tackle the sensitive matter with their students, while others fear backlash or reprisal.

As discussions about the Israel-Hamas war permeate classrooms across America, students and teachers in K-12 schools report varying degrees of opinion and support as they navigate the onerous landscape.

For instance, one 10th-grade Oakland High School student in Oakland, California, told ABC News that teachers have been proactive in opening dialogue around the subject.

"A lot of my teachers spent a good chunk of the class day talking about the conflict with Palestine and Israel and what was going on," said the student, who asked to remain anonymous.

"I felt like that was pretty helpful and I feel like it was very positive, because a lot of my classmates didn't know a lot of the information. And I feel like they were very engaged and had a lot of questions."

But about 30 miles away in Palo Alto, a 12th grade Jewish student told ABC News he is concerned about the silence from teachers in his classrooms, especially as he says he continues to see hate incidents plague his community.

"The school offered very little support for students" during Hamas' declared "Day of Rage" on Oct. 13, said Palo Alto student Ori Cohen. The terrorist group called for a day of "anger" across the Muslim world in support of the Palestinians and against the retaliatory strikes from Israel in Gaza.

"Students didn't show up to school because they didn't feel safe. And the school just did a really bad job of handling it," he said. The school district did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Cohen told ABC News he and other Jewish students fear the rise in antisemitism across the country.

PHOTO: New York City teacher Sari Beth Rosenberg and New Jersey teacher of the year Joe Nappi are two of the many teachers nationwide grappling with how to tackle the Israel-Gaza debate in their classrooms.
New York City teacher Sari Beth Rosenberg and New Jersey teacher of the year Joe Nappi are two of the many teachers nationwide grappling with how to tackle the Israel-Gaza debate in their classrooms.
ABC News

Several school systems have issued warnings regarding ongoing conflicts in schools regarding the war. A letter from the New Jersey Department of Education read that "reports indicating students are facing harassment at schools based on cultural or religious affiliation, including incidents involving racist and derogatory remarks, online bullying, and other harmful or threatening behaviors."

At least eight K-12 schools or school districts, including the New York City Department of Education, have been placed under investigation for discrimination involving religion, shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics -- which includes antisemitism and Islamophobia -- by the U.S. Department of Education since the beginning of the war on Oct. 7.

Fears of addressing 'divisive' issues

Educators interviewed by ABC News say that there is a climate of concern among teachers who fear punishment for tackling the subject amid sensitivities over identity and religion.

Fears about what they can and cannot say in the classroom are especially prevalent in states with laws that limit certain lessons that touch on "divisive concepts" including race, ethnicity and LGBTQ topics, the many educators said. These laws have led to restrictions and caution around teaching such topics, including limitations on what books and resources they can use in classrooms.

Supporters of these laws argue that certain lessons on "divisive" issues make some students feel "shame" or "guilt" and should not be allowed in public schools.

Critics of these laws say the policies' vague language infringes on educators' ability to teach students basic U.S. and world history.

In some cases, these laws include provisions that allow citizens to take legal actions against the schools for perceived violations of the restrictions and allow schools to terminate educators for such violations.

"This is probably one of the most challenging times for teachers anywhere and everywhere," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher's union in the country, told ABC News.

"Teachers have been walking on eggshells … They are not confident that if they engage in any of these discussions, that they're going to be supported through it."

In Oakland, California teachers told ABC News they feared punishment for holding a teach-in about Palestinian perspectives about the conflict in response to what they say has been a predominantly Israeli-focused narrative that was given by the district.

OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell criticized the teach-in. Trammell told parents that she was "deeply disappointed by the harmful and divisive materials" teachers were using for the educational programming on Palestinian voices.

A district official told ABC News they "don't think the superintendent is seeking to be punitive," however, one teacher said they were told there could potentially be disciplinary measures from the district following the backlash.

In Maryland, the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Montgomery County Public Schools on behalf of a teacher who said they were suspended for using the phrase “from the river to the sea” in their e-mail signature.

Palestinians have pointed to this decades-old Palestinian rallying cry that has long been used to express support for Palestinian rights and freedom. However, some Jewish advocacy groups consider the phrase to be code for violence against Israelis and Jews and advocating to wipe Israel off the map.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials have not yet returned ABC News' request for comment.

In Florida, a Palm Beach elementary school teacher was targeted by local lawmakers who argued for her suspension after she used "from the river to the sea" on social media, according to a statement from Rep. Mike Caruso read at a school board meeting.

The Palm Beach Post reported that the teacher also asked school officials to express support for the Palestinian community amid the ongoing conflict, and that she was later suspended while the school investigates whether she broke any laws or district rules by doing so.

School District of Palm Beach County officials, as well as local teachers union officials, have not yet returned ABC News' request for comment.

"We're working in an environment of where there has been a chilling effect on teaching honestly about U.S. history and foreign policy for a long time," said Deborah Menkart, the co-director of the education advocacy group Zinn Education Project.

Frustrated by silence

PHOTO: Student backpacks hang on the backs of classroom chairs on the second to last day of school as New York City public schools prepare to wrap up the year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on June 24, 2022 in New York City.
Student backpacks hang on the backs of classroom chairs on the second to last day of school as New York City public schools prepare to wrap up the year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on June 24, 2022 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, FILE

But in schools where teachers decline to touch on the subject, students say they feel frustrated by the silence.

"I feel like they don't really talk about it," said an 11th-grade student in Fremont High School in Oakland, California. "We're living our normal lives. And it looks like we're ignoring what's happening over there. Even though it's so far away from us, it still affects us."

Social studies teacher Joseph Nappi, who is this year's New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, said that choosing not to tackle the subject with students "is also a choice."

"If we're not going to give our students the skills and the resources and the context to try to make sense of this, then we're kind of trusting them to figure it out on social media," said Nappi, who teaches at Monmouth Regional High School.

"And I think for those of us who spend some time on social media, that's kind of a horrifying proposition."

The students interviewed by ABC News said they've used social media to learn more about the conflict, including personal accounts of what was happening on the ground in Israel and Gaza.

While educators acknowledged social media has allowed students to access a diversity of perspectives, it has also allowed students to encounter misinformation or hate speech.

Educators warn that falsehoods students encounter online may go uncorrected if schools fail to help students navigate the conversation.

Nappi, who touches on subjects like antisemitism and Islamophobia in his classroom, said that he approaches conversations with the belief that some hateful rhetoric is unintentional.

"I think that's where you can get teachable moments, right? Where you can take those moments and talk about 'why do I have a problem with what you just said?' and 'what is it in here that's problematic?'" Nappi said.

Touching on sensitive subjects

New York City history teacher Sari Beth Rosenberg at the High School for Environmental Studies said students reported hearing questions like "Are you Team Israeli? Or are you Team Palestinian?" at the cafeteria after the war began.

She said it came as no surprise to her, "because if you look at the online space, that was already happening the day after -- if not that day of -- the attack."

After a conversation with her students, she says she decided she's on "team humanity."

"I know that it sounds corny, but it's true," Rosenberg said. "And when you're talking to a diverse student population -- and we're an increasingly diverse nation -- it's so important in a school setting that you first frame it around humanity. If you're going to bring up teams, I think we need to start with a common ground."

Despite a growing climate of uncertainty and fear for some, other teachers have reached out to educational organizations like Facing History and Ourselves, Zinn Education Project and the AFT for resources to begin to bring the discussion into their classroom.

The American Federation of Teachers said its online lesson plans that explore the historical context and perspectives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been viewed thousands of times since the war began, and teachers from across the country have reached out for help -- with the majority coming from California, New York, Virginia, Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania.

"When you're talking about something that's deeply personal to someone's roots, their religion, their ethnicity, it's scary because you just don't want anyone to get hurt," said Rosenberg, who says her school's administration has provided teachers with informational resources to help them implement such discussions in their classrooms.

She continued, referring to the tense and sometimes violent altercations between people with opposing viewpoints: "If we are not having these conversations about divisive issues, and helping kids frame it in a way so the kids know to have these conversations, we're going to have even more of what we're seeing on the internet and also offline on the streets."