New York Public Schools chancellor scolds Republicans for ‘gotcha’ antisemitism hearing, saying district disciplined staff

David Banks, the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, said at a congressional hearing Wednesday that his district has removed, disciplined or is in the process of disciplining at least a dozen staff and school leaders over alleged antisemitism, pushing back strongly against Republicans’ accusations that the school system was failing to take action for hate speech and incidents against Jewish students and faculty.

“Keeping schools safe is in my DNA,” Banks testified at a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. “When antisemitism rears its head, I believe we must respond. And we have.”

Banks said the discipline against faculty includes removing a principal in the middle of the school year. He added that New York City Public Schools has suspended at least 30 students, called in the New York City Police Department when necessary and retrained all 1,600 principals on the discipline code.

Banks added that suspending students and faculty alone won’t solve the problem, stressing that engagement with the community and teaching are crucial.

“The true antidote is to teach,” he said.

Banks was combative in his tone, frequently talking over and correcting members of Congress who accused New York school system of doing too little to fight antisemitism. He questioned Republicans’ motivations for the hearing and urged Congress to take steps to “bring us together” to find solutions to fight hate beyond just holding hearings.

“This convening, for too many Americans in education, feels like the ultimate gotcha moment,” Banks said. “It doesn’t sound like people who are actually trying to solve for something that, I believe, we should be doing everything we can solve for.”

Avoiding past mistakes

Banks’ testimony highlighted a two-hour-long grilling of the leaders of three school districts in liberal cities about alleged antisemitic incidents. It marked the first such Congressional hearing to focus on K-12 schools.

His fiery demeanor avoided the past mistakes of Ivy League school presidents who have also been hauled before Congress for tough questioning on campus antisemitism. The presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania were toppled in the wake of a December hearing after failing to say whether calls on campus for genocide of Jews would violate school rules. By contrast, Columbia’s president last month was criticized by many faculty and students for being overly conciliatory to demands of right-wing members of Congress.

Wednesday’s hearing gave Republicans a chance to confront officials from New York City; Berkeley, California; and Montgomery County, Maryland, about reports of antisemitism in their districts.

It’s no coincidence that the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing represent school districts in liberal cities. Republicans have sought to score political points by attacking “woke” policies that they say allow for hate speech.

A separate House committee had planned to hold a hearing about reports of antisemitism on George Washington University’s campus. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Metropolitan Police Chief Pam Smith were set to testify before about their response to an encampment on campus. But after that encampment was cleared Wednesday morning, and police arrested dozens of people, the committee called off the hearing.

Queens high school in focus

Lawmakers at the hearing focused in particular on an incident from last fall at Hillcrest High School in Queens, where a pro-Israel teacher reportedly hid for hours from hundreds of protesting students. Banks condemned the incident.

“I condemn clearly: What happened at Hillcrest was a complete act of antisemitism. It will not stand on my watch,” Banks said. “We responded. And I don’t know how to make it any clearer.”

Banks, who graduated from Hillcrest, said the principal of the school was removed and has not been transferred to lead another school. But New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik tussled with Banks over the fact that the principal had been reassigned – but not fired.

Stefanik, citing local media reports, said the principal of Hillcrest High School in Queens was given a senior position, working on a team led by the school district’s deputy chancellor. Banks said he could not confirm the former principal’s current role, but he acknowledged the principal was removed from his job but reassigned elsewhere in the district. He testified that the principal was removed for failing to provide proper supervision.

“That’s concerning to me that you have him in a senior position,” Stefanik told Banks. “We’re getting lip service but a lack of enforcement and a lack of accountability.”

New York Republican Rep. Brandon Williams also slammed Banks for not firing the principal.

“How can Jewish students feel safe at New York City Public Schools when you can’t even manage to terminate the principal of Open-Season-on-Jews High School?” Williams asked Banks during a fiery exchange. “How can Jewish students go to school knowing that he is still on your payroll?”

Banks explained that every employee has due process rights and stressed everything is done to make sure teachers and students are safe.

“We don’t always get it right,” Banks acknowledged.

Under questioning from lawmakers, Banks said Hillcrest High School was not “radicalized.”

“But the kids who were responsible…engaged clearly in an act of antisemitism. And I dealt with it,” he said, noting that “we suspended students, we removed the principal from the school.”

“A Jewish teacher was targeted in a frightening episode. We didn’t accept that. We pushed back on that tremendously,” he said.

A ‘deeply troubling’ incident

Stefanik also questioned Banks on allegations that students marched in the hallway of Origins High School in Brooklyn chanting “death to Jews.”

Banks said an investigation showed no evidence that was chanted in the halls, although he noted what the probe revealed was “deeply troubling,” and a number of students at the school were suspended.

Banks said he couldn’t provide details of what happened at Origins, because the incident was under litigation.

He also noted a principal at another school was disciplined after assigning a teacher to go with a student to an anti-Israel protest. Banks called that action “completely inappropriate” and said both the principal and teacher were disciplined, but not fired.

Berkeley under investigation

The hearing came a day after the US Department of Education said in a letter reviewed by CNN that it is investigating Berkeley Unified School District in California for allegations of discrimination based on a shared Jewish ancestry or being Israeli.

A copy of the letter, sent to the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center, says the department’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether the district complied with Title VI requirements to prevent discrimination and harassment. The department is also investigating whether the Berkeley district retaliated against two parents who complained about harassment based on Jewish ancestry.

CNN has reached out to the school district for a comment. The Education Department referred questions to a list of schools currently under investigation for shared ancestry claims. However, that list does not currently include the Berkeley school district.

The complaint filed by the Brandeis Center details dozens of incidents at Berkeley, including students allegedly shouting: “kill the Jews,” and “F— the Jews” as well as “KKK.”

Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District in California, testified Wednesday that there have been allegations of antisemitism in her district but denied that the problem is widespread.

“Our babies sometimes say harmful things. We are mindful that all kids make mistakes,” Ford Morthel said, referring to students. “We know that our staff are not immune to mistakes either. And we don’t ignore them when they occur.”

Since the October 7 terror attack against Israel, there have been formal complaints alleging antisemitism linked to nine incidents in the school district, Ford Morthel told lawmakers.

“However, antisemitism is not pervasive in the Berkeley Unified School District,” she said.

Ford Morthel noted that the district does not share actions the school district takes against students or teachers because this information is protected under federal and state law.

“As a result, some believe we do nothing. That is not true,” she said.

CNN’s Nick Watt and Taylor Romine contributed to this report

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