Michal Yariv says she “was shocked.”
Yariv, the parent of an Evanston Township High School student, says she was angered and hurt to learn that two high school employees, a teacher and another worker, wore “Free Palestine” t-shirts to school last month.
Multiple sources have confirmed to Evanston Now that the two staffers worn the T-shirts to school on a day following the Hamas attacks in Israel that killed 1,400 people and left nearly 240 held hostage.
Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza has left an estimated 10,000 Palestinians dead.
“This is obviously a complex issue,” Yariv says. “There are lots of opinions and emotions. But having a teacher wear this kind of slogan to school feels highly inappropriate to me.”
A group of Jewish parents has complained to the ETHS administration, and has also gotten the Jewish United Fund, an advocacy and community relations group, involved in trying to resolve the situation.
The administration has now sent an email to all employees, reminding them that “Words, actions, behaviors, and attire that could create a negative, harassing, unsafe, and/or discriminatory learning environment must be avoided.”
The email included links to ETHS policies on conduct, harassment in the workplace, harassment of students, and faculty handbook hate speech guidelines and clothing guidelines, all of which prohibit wearing items with potentially hurtful wording.
For example, Policy 7;20, “Harassment of Students Prohibited,” states that “No person, including a School District employee … shall harass, intimidate, or bully a student based on” a variety of categories including “religion.”
To some, a slogan on a T-shirt may not seem like intimidation or harassment. But the issue, according to the policy, is not what the person wearing the shirt thinks, but rather, how it is received by someone who sees it.
ETHS clothing guidelines for teachers incorporate the same rules as the those for students.
Those rules mandate that “attire does not contribute to a hostile or intimidating environment for any student….”
Particularly galling to the Jewish parents is the fact that the T-shirts were worn around the same time that ETHS sent out specific guidelines on what could not be worn at school on Halloween, so that certain individuals and groups would not feel harassed nor intimidated.
Adam Stock also has a child at ETHS.
Stock says that the phrase “Free Palestine” may not seem threatening to some. But to many Jews, he says, it’s no different than another pro-Palestinian slogan, “Palestine Will Be Free, From the River to the Sea,” which, to Stock, “means abolish the state of Israel.”
“The high school,” Stock says, “has a responsibility to keep their students psychologically safe. My daughter was crying. She does not feel safe” at ETHS,” he says.
Stock says it’s particularly problematic for teachers to wear any kind of controversial slogan, because teachers are authority figures with control over students.
“I know several of the kids were concerned there would be retribution” if they complained.
Jane Charney, of the Jewish United Fund, met recently with representatives of the ETHS administration, and also with about 40 parents of Jewish students.
Charney tells Evanston Now that she “believes the school administration takes this very seriously, and they understand that Jewish students are going through tremendous trauma. [The administration] committed to address the situation and we look for action.”
ETHS will not say if any steps will be taken against the two employees who wore the shirts, as that is a personnel matter.
However, spokesperson Takumi Iseda tells Evanston Now that “ETHS provides guidelines to staff and sets expectations for professional conduct at all times,” and the appropriate district polices have been “shared with staff as a reminder of these expectations.”
The issue of what a school employee can or cannot wear is, of course, bigger than just this particular case.
The same rules would apply if an educator wore a “MAGA” shirt, or a “Re-Elect Biden” button.
And, the Jewish parents who are upset about the “Free Palestine” shirts also say it would be just as wrong for a teacher to wear a shirt in school supporting the Israeli military, which would likely trouble students of Palestinian descent.