Upper Valley students urge schools to allow debate on Israel-Hamas war


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2024 7:30 PM

Modified: 05-11-2024 9:00 AM

HARTFORD — A group of Hartford High School students think the adults around them are keeping mum on contentious topics such as the Israeli attack on Gaza for fear of getting in trouble, and it’s dampening their educational experience.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, they asked the School Board to send a strong message to faculty and staff that allowing and facilitating conversations about challenging topics is not only permitted but encouraged.

In short, they want the district leadership to “give teachers the OK to talk about Palestine,” Hartford senior Molly Armbrust, of West Hartford, said.

Addressing the School Board and Superintendent Tom DeBalsi during the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting, four students including Armbrust, accompanied by Julia Anderson, the district’s equity liaison, requested that the board allow DeBalsi to send a letter to teachers assuring them that they will be supported in having discussions with students on important and even controversial issues.

“There’s a fear of saying the wrong thing about topics and being shunned by the community,” Hartford junior Liam Mangieri, of Quechee, said, noting that he was referring to adults, not students, fearing ostracism. “So they try to keep everyone happy by not discussing these topics.”

Teachers may also feel that they don’t have the expertise to confidently wade into hot-button issues with long and complex histories. Hartford Junior Nicola Husmann, of Hartland, emphasized the importance of student-teacher co-learning.

“It’s such a significant event that’s happening in the global community, so I feel like everybody has a responsibility to be educating themselves about it,” she said.

Students don’t need their teachers to be experts as much as they need them to be willing to guide and promote healthy and constructive dialogue.

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“We’re asking for them to facilitate discussions,” Husmann said. “They don’t necessarily have to be incredibly knowledgeable of the topic, even just allowing the space for it would be incredibly helpful to the students right now.”

The letter the students asked the Hartford School Board to endorse is based closely on one written last November by Winooski School District Superintendent Wilmer Chavarria following the shooting of three students of Palestinian descent in Burlington. It has also been adopted by the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union in Brattleboro.

“It’s a letter everyone should send. It’s beautiful,” DeBalsi said.

The letter asks adults in the school community to create “welcoming dialogical spaces for students, even when they are not apparently interested in engaging at first.”

It urges teachers to avoid using the excuse of “not being experts on the matter in order to avoid a difficult discussion because we are afraid of making a mistake.”

Referencing the district’s commitment to anti-racism, the letter invites teachers to make exceptions to their lesson plans to “have worthy conversations like these, even if they only focus on how the students are feeling at this moment in relation to local incidents.” It commits DeBalsi and other administrators to being present when needed to support teachers.

Sophomore Alex Hultquist, of Wilder, urged board members not to see the issue as hopelessly politicized.

“Even though many people would view this as a political issue, it’s not political if it’s involving human rights,” Hultquist said.

Hultquist referenced the district’s commitment to equity and its anti-racism policy, saying that the letter is “very much aligned with what we already have a commitment to.”

The Hartford students’ message to the School Board occurs in the context of protests at more than 100 college campuses throughout the country, protests that have at times involved violent clashes with police. Student protesters are demanding that their institutions divest from companies supplying armaments to Israel.

Pro-Palestinian activism on campuses began last fall after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that killed 1,200 Israelis, with an additional 250 taken hostage. Since then, Israel’s retaliatory assault on Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians and garnered international condemnation. Israel’s recent assault on Rafah has cut off humanitarian aid and resulted in the dislocation of some 100,000 people fleeing airstrikes.

In the Upper Valley, two Dartmouth students engaged in a peaceful pro-Palestinian protest outside the college president’s office were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing in October. Their case is still wending its way through the courts.

The arrest of 89 peaceful protesters on the Dartmouth campus on May 1 added a level of urgency to the Hartford students’ request for constructive space for dialogue. Two student journalists were among those arrested that night, and though the Dartmouth administration eventually advocated for their charges to be dropped and they were, the college’s initial statement was tepid, and offered little more than a hope that the legal process would play out in the journalists’ favor.

This, to some high school students, was chilling.

“It was a kind of repressive of free speech. They just were peacefully protesting, and the riot police showed up,” Mangieri, the Hartford junior, said.

At Thetford Academy, members of a newly-formed chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine were outraged by the May 1 arrests at Dartmouth and composed a scathing letter to the editor in the Valley News denouncing the aggressive police response and defending the right of free speech.

Thetford Academy junior Caroline Watts, of Thetford, was at the protest on the Dartmouth Green on May 1. She left before the arrival of the riot police for fear of being arrested as a minor, but the event strengthened her commitment to pro-Palestinian activism.

“After that protest, I’m really all in,” she said.

Dartmouth President Sian Bielock has come under fire for deploying heavy-handed tactics against nonviolent students. Critics point out the logical inconsistency between her actions on the ground and her “Dartmouth Dialogue” initiative, launched in January, which was intended to “foster brave spaces and build community at Dartmouth,” according to a press release issued by the college at the time.

At the high school level, students are creating spaces for themselves and asking their institutions to help make them safe and constructive. Thetford Academy students began a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter last month, and the group now has about 20 members.

The idea for the chapter emerged from a class called Social Justice and Action, which focused on Palestine. Some of the students decided to take on a more activist stance toward the conflict, but when they put up posters announcing their first meeting, many were ripped off the walls.

“That was surprising, because nobody had spoken publicly about it,” freshman Aiden Otterman, of West Topsham, said in an interview.

The students describe the atmosphere of discourse at their school as “neutral,” in the sense that the war in Gaza isn’t discussed much in class. In their school generally, there’s “not necessarily a place to discuss the issues,” freshman Omi Malin, of Thetford, said.

But the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Thetford Academy has increasingly garnered support among the students and its members think that it’s the type of venue that students want and aren’t finding on their campuses.

“A lot of high schoolers want to get involved but they don’t know how to,” Watts said.

With the school allowing activism and engagement with social justice movements, students do find support, but only once they’ve raised the issue and started a club. Teachers and administrators either don’t have time or don’t make time to talk with students about some of the most significant world issues, the students said.

“I feel like some kids are worried about being controversial and some kids are just uninformed,” Aiden said.

For some Thetford Academy students, the problem isn’t at school, it’s at home.

“I can’t talk about this stuff with my parents,” Aiden said. “A lot of kids are worried about backlash from their families” if they engage with contentious political topics, he added.

In Hartford, the students’ request that the board accept the “Winooski model” language of the letter was well-received. It is the role of education to “allow discussion of the world in which you will inhabit,” board member Peter Merrill said to the students. “Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that you have these conversations.”

He was careful to note that allowing students the space to engage in conversation was “not the same thing as saying that the school district is taking sides.”

The Hartford students and their equity liaison have big plans for programming and events, and a fierce commitment to justice in Palestine. They hope to bring in experts to provide education on subjects such as Palestinian history. Armbrust, a senior, wants to establish a workshop on how to engage in activism and she wants to work with the equity committee to provide teaching and coping resources to teachers.

“Our school is still learning h ow to have uncomfortable conversations,” Husmann, the Hartford junior, said.

Mangieri thinks it’s gotten better over the past few years, but “we need to keep practicing.” he said.

Both the board and the students acknowledged that social media gives young people access to so much information so readily, that they’re not always able to process it in a healthy and constructive way, which points to the need for skillful facilitation.

“There is harm in not having these conver sations, too,” Armbrust said.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-72 7-3208.