Montgomery County Parents Gather Signatures To Declare Schools ‘Hate-Free Zones’
Online effort has garnered more than 1,700 names in the first month
A screenshot of the Change.org petition launched by a coalition of local parents and nonprofit groups.
More than 1,700 people have signed an online petition urging Montgomery County education leaders to declare public schools “hate-free zones” and combat the divisiveness that has settled over the nation and seeped into schools in recent months.
A coalition called Montgomery County Parents Rising and a couple of local nonprofit organizations are behind the Change.org effort, which aims to prevent discrimination, protect undocumented families and uphold students’ rights to activism.
“The fact is that we have many, many students of many nationalities who feel unsafe in schools right now,” said Jaime Koppel, a Takoma Park mom who helped launch the petition. “We are hopeful that schools will really stand behind that equity and publicly embrace those students so they don’t feel so vulnerable.”
Last year, hate symbols and language were found scrawled on the walls of bathrooms and spray painted on sidewalks and poles at public elementary schools in Bethesda and Silver Spring. Swastikas were burned into the grass of a Gaithersburg high school football field and scrawled in a restroom at a Bethesda middle school.
Montgomery County Parents Rising formed late last year in response to the surge of hate-related activity and to the caustic national dialogue that organizers believe has fueled it.
“I never expected, living in Montgomery County, to see these types of hate crimes occurring in my own community,” said Monisha Shah, another member of the coalition.
The Board of Education and Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith have repeatedly denounced hate incidents in county schools in open letters to the public and through video messages.
While Koppel said she appreciated the statements, she saw them as a first step toward creating an inclusive environment in county classrooms. The petition asks the school system to focus specific attention on preventing Islamophobia and to reaching Muslim, Sikh and south Asian students in their own languages.
School spokesman Derek Turner pointed to an article declaring that MCPS has undertaken "one of the most comprehensive efforts to address Islamophobia." The school system consults with an interfaith group in developing curriculum and policy, according to the Teaching Tolerance article. MCPS has also crafted guidelines for respecting religious diversity, with information about accommodations for prayer and dietary practices.
The parents' coalition also wants schools declared “sanctuary zones” for undocumented students and families and partnerships with nonprofit groups that serve immigrant populations to be strengthened. CASA de Maryland in Takoma Park and Identity Inc. in Gaithersburg, two local organizations that support immigrants, have signed onto the parents’ letter.
In a recent statement, school board members explained that federal immigration agents don’t make arrests or conduct interviews at schools, but that MCPS administrators are keeping an eye on the situation.
“We have, and will continue to, inform our staff that they should not take any actions that may discourage participation or lead to the exclusion of students based on immigration status,” the board’s letter stated.
Diego Uriburu, Identity’s executive director, said President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has frightened people. Some children of immigrants are skipping school because they’re scared of being separated from their parents if immigration agents show up at their homes while they are in class, he said. Reports of bullying and discrimination are also surfacing, he said.
Uriburu commended County Council members and education leaders for offering reassurance in this stressful time.
“Montgomery County has reacted extremely swiftly and aggressively to dispel rumors,” he said.
In December, Smith spoke at an Identity-sponsored gathering of about 180 parents and children. The superintendent stressed that “your children are safe and secure in our schools, nothing will happen to them and we will resist all efforts to change that,” Identity reported.
The petition launched last month currently aims to gather 2,500 signatures. The signatures will be presented to the school board and the superintendent.