State affirms school curriculum after protests
State education officials in September rejected a parent’s complaint that the history curriculum for ninth- and 10th-graders at Newton’s high schools contained anti-Semitic material and Islamic dogma.
But the issue reemerged in recent weeks when a separate group took out advertisements in multiple publications accusing the Newton school district of using materials that “demonize Israel” and glorify Islam.
The accusation was flatly rejected by Newton school officials.
“There is not a single accusation that has merit,” School Committee vice chairman Matt Hills said of the ads, which were placed by a Watertown-based group, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, that has clashed repeatedly with the district over the last two years. “This is about pure distortion of the facts.”
The ads were also criticized as misleading by a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, and repudiated by clergy from two Newton temples.
The world history curriculum at Newton North and Newton South high schools includes the historical origins and basic beliefs of major world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. School officials say religion is taught from a historical, not theological, point of view.
The original complaint to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was filed in May by a Newton parent. She said she is not affiliated with Americans for Peace and Tolerance, and she disapproves of the group’s ads. She asked that her name be withheld to protect her child’s identity.
Her 174-page complaint, provided by the state, alleged that the curriculum violated the separation of church and state by spending an “inordinate” amount of time on Islam, and at too high a level of detail. It also alleged that class materials contained anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, racist, and false information, and pointed specifically to passages from “A Muslim Primer,” “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” and a website called Flashpoints.
State education officials disagreed. In a Sept. 17 letter to the parent, the agency said it found that “no violation of education law, regulation or policy has occurred with regard to the specific concern(s) you have raised.”
A little more than a month later, ads placed by Americans for Peace and Tolerance — making similar accusations and citing some of the same materials — appeared in local papers.
Beginning on Oct. 23, ads criticizing the Newton curriculum began running in the Boston Herald, Newton Tab, Metro Boston, Jewish Advocate, and Boston Globe. The ads say the district uses “biased texts” to teach lies, hate, and intolerance.
The “Arab World Studies Notebook” was removed from the curriculum last year after a parent complained in 2011 of bias and the district decided the material was outdated, school officials said. Flashpoints had been linked to the Newton North High School library website and was removed after parents complained, officials said.
Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, said he cannot prove that all of the passages cited in the ads are actually taught to students, but that any book that contains such passages should not be part of the curriculum. He said it is up to the schools to make the entire curriculum publicly available to prove there is no anti-Semitism.
“We don’t know exactly what students are being taught, we know what’s in those books,” said Jacobs. “They won’t tell us what students are being taught.”
Superintendent David Fleishman, who along with Hills was named personally in the ads, said the district encourages parents to read the curriculum. He has not heard from a single Newton parent concerned about the teaching materials since the ads ran, he said.
“Parents have access to their kids’ curriculum materials, and they trust our teachers,” said Fleishman. “Our work speaks for itself.”
The Anti-Defamation League has in the past investigated assertions by Jacobs, said its New England regional director, Robert Trestan, and found them to be “misleading.”
“We take these allegations very seriously, and we look into them,” said Trestan. “We concluded that the ad’s description of the material that we reviewed goes beyond reasonable criticism.”
Parents should not be worried by allegations in the ads, he said. “The Newton public schools do not have an agenda to delegitimize Israel and glorify Islam,” Trestan said.
Hills said that the examples included in the ads are deeply misleading, with passages taken out of context or altered to change their meaning, along with passages that are simply not taught.
Trestan said the Anti-Defamation League also found that some passages cited by the ads were not taught in Newton schools, and that “much of what they allege is out of context, and doesn’t take into account the class, the methodology, and the whole context of whatever the publication is.”
Both Hills and Fleishman said the district teaches critical thinking by presenting a range of perspectives to students, including those that are not widely accepted, and helping them analyze and assess evidence and arguments.
The state’s letter responding to the parent’s concerns, Hills said, “lends credibility to our curriculum on this whole issue of whether we’ve got a problematic curriculum.”
Jacobs, however, said the response does nothing to allay his fears.
“We don’t trust political bodies like the state department of education to act any better than their school department,” he said. “It’s a typical, not uncommon experience: to have bureaucracies circle the wagons.”
His group, Jacobs said, never said that anyone broke the law, and he said the state’s decision was “too narrowly focused” to address its concerns. He did not know about the complaint that triggered the decision when he placed the ads, he said.
Since the ads ran, Jacobs said, he has been contacted by students and parents, who have sent in more materials that his group is analyzing.
Some of the ads featured the home telephone number for Hills, and he said he has received more than 100 calls, some in the middle of the night and almost all from outside Newton. The police, said Hills, “were wonderful and continue to be wonderful in providing security to our home.”
The ad in the Globe did not contain his home phone number.
The ads have provoked strong rebuke from clergy members in Newton.
Clergy at Temple Emanuel, where Hills attends and where his wife is president, sent out a joint statement last week demanding that the ads be retracted, calling them “baseless” and “scurrilous.”
Eric Gurvis, rabbi at Temple Shalom and father of three Newton North alumni and one current student, called the ads “a witch hunt to promote a very narrow agenda.”
Gurvis, who said he has had run-ins with Americans for Peace and Tolerance in the past, said he remembered the 2011 incident at Newton South that sparked the earlier controversy, but called it an example of accountability by the school because the material at issue was removed.
“There are things in that ad that are based on things that actually happened, but a lot of it is hyperbole based on a trumping-up of what happened and a shading of the facts,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s a legitimate way to conduct discourse in a community.”
Gurvis said the Watertown organization has already had its concerns addressed many times.
“Peace and tolerance is not what their work is really about,” he said.