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Brattleboro Middle School Assembly On Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Sparks Community-Wide Debate

Howard Weiss-Tisman

The Brattleboro school district wants to develop a new protocol for what visitors invited to speak at student assemblies can address after a recent discussion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict upset some community members.

Recently, the Brattleboro Middle School called a school-wide meeting to get the students thinking about how they can talk about difficult issues. The guests included Zeiad Abbas, a Palestinian refugee, and strong critic of the Israeli government.

Brattleboro Area Middle School principal Keith Lyman says he had some concerns after calling Abbas the night before the event. Lyman says he called Abbas and asked if there was a way to make sure both sides of the controversial subject was covered.

“'What do you mean? There’s one perspective,’” Lyman said Abbas replied. “And that was the huge red flag. [And I thought] I’m not ready for this. Our school isn’t ready for this. It was just enough of a red flag, [to ask], why would I go down this road, as a principal.”

So after the call Lyman and his staff scrambled, and they shuffled the program around.

Abbas, and the other people he was traveling with, would attend the discussion, but Lyman did not want to get into a debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“In the assembly our guests were handed the microphone,” Lyman explained. “And once they had an opportunity to speak it started to go into the stuff with Israel and Palestine. It was not what I had gone into the assembly expecting. And so I was upset.”

Lyman wasn’t the only one who was upset.

Word had gotten out that Abbas would speak that day and members of the Jewish community were in the audience taking notes.

Some teachers, and at least one student, Lyman says, were offended. The incident sparked a conversation among local activists on both sides of the issue.

There were charges from each side accusing the other of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, respectively.

And there were questions raised about censorship, and about just who gets to recount their version of history.

Brattleboro resident Kate Casa has worked with groups in Vermont and Washington, D.C. that support Palestinian rights.

Casa says a speaker on any other issue would be allowed to talk without having the school apologize for presenting a point of view to its students.

“When certain groups in the community control who comes in to a school, and who speaks, there’s a risk. It’s a slippery slope,” she says. “Where does that stop? And there’s a dichotomy when certain groups are allowed to speak, or certain individuals or advocates are allowed to speak, and others are not. Children have to be presented with all of the information. That’s how they become critical thinkers.”

The school principal, Keith Lyman, says there is a place in the schools for tough conversations.

But he says there has to be a balanced message, and the teachers and students who take part need to know a little more about what they’re walking in to.

John Ungerleider is professor at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, and he’s done conflict resolution programs with Palestinians, Israelis and other groups around the world with their own histories of violence and struggle.

Ungerleider’s not sure, that even with the best planning, middle school students should be expected to grasp the perceived realities of the Middle East conflict.

"There's a dichotomy when certain groups are allowed to speak, or certain individuals or advocates are allowed to speak, and others are not. Children have to be presented with all of the information. That's how they become critical thinkers." — Kate Casa, Brattleboro resident

Because he says in place like Vermont, Jewish students, as well as Muslims, and any minority for that matter, have to feel safe.

“It layers itself on top of something that’s quite common in the U.S., a rural anti-Semitism,” Ungerleider says. “And when young people hear the messages of Jews being bad, or Jews treating Palestinians badly, in this case, they’re going to develop attitudes about Jews that are negative and that are anti-Semitic. And that’s scary for Jewish people living in rural Vermont. It’s scary about the safety of kids in the schools. And we see it’s scary in our society.”

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Lyle Holiday is admits that things didn’t go as planned at the assembly.

Holiday says it’s hard for a principal to make sure he or she knows what every visitor is going to present, but she says the district will be developing a more structured protocol to better control the message that students are hearing.

“Yes I think we need to have difficult conversations. Students can understand difficult conversations,” Holiday says. “But I feel like if we’re going to be bringing in people to discuss anything that may be political in nature. We need to make sure there’s a balanced message.”

Holiday says the district is working on a new set of guidelines, and that in the future schools will check the backgrounds of speakers.

“One of the lessons for us is that we need to have a better format for bringing in speakers and knowing what it is that they’re going to talk about,” Holiday says. “And then be ready to say, ‘Wait a minute. Here are our guidelines.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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