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The Student Newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School

The Beacon

The Student Newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School

The Beacon

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Pro-Palestine protests upend culture night

Jackson-Reed’s culture night ended in turmoil after a small group of pro-Palestine protesters disrupted the annual event, which was meant to highlight student cultural diversity.

The protesters—including one with a bullhorn—chanted “Free Palestine!” and called Jewish and Israeli students “Nazis” and “genocide lovers,” according to videos and eyewitnesses. DCPS police eventually intervened and removed the protesters.

The events prompted criticism from JR parents and the Jewish community.

“It is beyond outrageous that Jewish and Israeli children and parents who simply attended and participated in an International Culture Night were subjected to unhinged protestors accusing them of being ‘genocide lovers’ who support ‘killing kids,’” the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington said in a statement.

The JCRC called for a “full investigation from DCPS and law enforcement officials in response to this disturbing incident.”

Law enforcement is investigating the incident, and the matter is under review by the DCPS Comprehensive Alternative Resolution and Equity (CARE) team, according to an email sent by DCPS Deputy Chancellor Drewana Bey to the JR community on June 7. JR administration is fully “cooperating with law enforcement as they investigate.”

CARE is responsible for “receiving claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying or unfair treatment that a student, parent or visitor experiences at a DCPS school” and will work with JR administration to resolve the issue.

The email reiterated Principal Sah Brown’s sentiments expressed in his statement right after the event. Brown wrote that Culture Night “exist[s] to honor our differences and come together to create an environment where everyone feels respected and valued.”

While Brown did not mention the protesters directly in his statement, he expressed “heartfelt appreciation for everyone who respectfully participated in and supported” the event.

The event, which took place on May 29 in the atrium, included student booths ranging from a Belgian culture display doling out waffles to a Union Latina table rewarding correct answers to trivia questions with candy. A trio performed Colombian music, and Hungarian folk dancers entertained the audience.

“It started out perfectly fine,” said junior Benji Roskes, who volunteered at the Jewish Student Union (JSU) table. Senior Lolera Tesema helped run the Arab Student Union (ASU) table. “People were coming to the table, learning, being educated,” she said.

The ASU and JSU tables were separated by a joint Model UN/Ukraine booth. Next to the JSU and ASU were two tables set up for Israel and Palestine, whose sponsors were not affiliated with either student club. The Israeli culture table was run by students and approved for the event.

The Palestine table, however, was run by adults. Tammy Lorenzo, the NAF director of the Academy of Global Studies (AGS), said that the Palestinian table did not sign up for the event through the proper process, which was through a QR code. When AGS staff asked who they were, the adults at the table responded that they were invited by the ASU.

Each table’s decorations included cultural objects. Students at the Israeli table handed out Israeli flags, stickers, pins, and snacks. “Behind our table was a Star of David made by lights and a PowerPoint displaying fun facts and statistics about Israel,” said sophomore volunteer Dan Kaye.

The Palestinian table included flags, small platters of traditional food, photographs of Palestinian people, and a sign that read “FULL CEASEFIRE IN GAZA NOW!” on an easel parallel to the table.

According to several bystanders, Brown approached the Palestinian table about the ceasefire sign. Tesema said she overheard a heated interaction and later learned that it was a dispute between Brown and an adult volunteer sponsoring the Palestinian table.

She said the interaction escalated when “a person from the Israeli table, an adult, came up and started recording an argument.” This engagement sparked a verbal confrontation between the two parents that the administration broke up, according to Tesema.

More than an hour into the event, as a Ukrainian dance troupe prepared to perform, a pro-Palestine protester climbed onto a planter with a bullhorn in hand, a video obtained by The Beacon shows, and shouted, “Free, free Palestine! From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” Another protester waved a Palestinian flag and repeated the chant.

Video shows Brown approaching the ASU booth and asking, “I’m sorry. Are they a part of your table?” referring to the protesters. Those at the table responded no. A DCPS police officer went up to the protester and took the bullhorn.

The protester then shouted, “Shame on you! Shame on all of you! Nazis! You’re supporting Nazism!” Another woman seen on video said, “Shame on you. Genocide lovers. Shame on you.”

Some protesters, including the one with the bullhorn, are family members of a JR student. The Beacon is not identifying the protesters out of concern for the student’s privacy and safety.

Several ASU members said they were taken aback by the protesters and tried to de-escalate the situation. Another bystander noted that the ASU “should not be blamed for this.”

Eventually, the protesters were removed from the atrium. However, other JSU and Israeli participants reported that at least one of the protesters was waiting outside the school and followed “many of us to our cars,” according to an anonymous student at the Israeli table.

School counselor Patrice Maites, who said she has worked all year to ease tensions among students, said she was verbally harassed during the event. “It was probably only the second time at Jackson-Reed High School in my 14 years that I ever felt uncomfortable,” she said.

Edna Friedberg, a JR parent and a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that protesters verbally harassed her son and his peers at the Israeli table where they were volunteering. She subsequently requested a meeting with Brown.

“I would like to find out what the school is doing to address what happened [and] what the consequences are for a parent using racist language and threatening actions toward kids, like filming them and saying they are going to post those videos on social media,” she said.

The protest occurred after months of controversy in the JR community following the attacks on Israel by Hamas on October 7 and the war in Gaza. In April, the ASU filed a lawsuit against Brown and DC, alleging censorship of pro-Palestinian speech. Last month, the groups settled some of the ASU’s demands.

“I am really sad for people who worked hard to create an evening celebrating the diversity of Jackson-Reed,” Friedberg said.

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